How's this for a protest: At exactly 4:20 p.m.: a thousand people in the grass and there emerged an indistinct cheer and the friendly rhythms of puff, puff and pass.
Once again, Winnipeggers descended on the Manitoba legislature Friday afternoon to observe 4/20 -- the worldwide date to celebrate the benefits of marijuana and protest its continued prohibition. Police would eventually shoo them away at about 5:30 p.m. But first, there was a lot of talking -- and toking -- to do.
"This is a great way to raise awareness," said Steven Stairs, 27, adding he could talk "for days" about the benefits of legalizing the plant. "There's so many negative stigmas out there, but it's something that should not be illegalized in the first place. Canada's a progressive country, we need to be a world leader."
For three years, Stairs has grown his own marijuana -- with a permit -- to treat the glaucoma that is stealing his eyesight. It worked so well he joined the Marijuana Party of Canada as its Kildonan-St. Paul representative. On Friday, he arrived at the protest toting signs to distribute to the gathered throngs. "DON'T PANIC, IT'S ORGANIC," one of them read.
Those signs would bear witness to the usual potpourri of 4/20 fans: there were the clusters of giggling teens in hoodies and torn-up jeans. There were the rangy men with steel-grey dreadlocks who have championed the cause since long before the kids were born. And along the legislature's marble steps, a thin blue line of stoic police officers, arms crossed in the generous springtime sun.
In the heart of the throng, a sturdy man stood in a black shirt that bore a bold message: "COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS," it read. "ASK ME WHY."
So we did. "For 40 years, we've enforced the law," said Bill VanderGraaf, a retired Winnipeg police staff sergeant who used to work the homicide and street-gang beats. "Now (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper's increased the law, and I think that's going to make our country more dangerous. We're criminalizing too many young people... you can recover from an addiction, but you'll never recover from a conviction."
After leaving the force in 2001, VanderGraaf joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international group calling for relaxation of drug laws, beginning with marijuana. There are plenty of police that support the movement, VanderGraaf said, though many can't speak out.
"Lots of officers these days don't want to waste their time with minor drug arrests," he said. "They support us through our website."
Amid the throng of 4/20 revellers, voices like VanderGraaf's are getting more attention in recent years. Ardent anti-prohibition activists have long fretted about the distinct absence of politics in the annual 4/20 circus: a protest with Porta-Potties, hotdog vendors and de facto government sanction isn't exactly pushing the envelope.
But in these days of the 99 per cent and the Buffett rule, there's one buzzword that's been steadily gaining steam: taxation.
Some of the younger attendees at the 4/20 protest don't like to hear it, older advocates said. But the idea of legalizing and then taxing marijuana like cigarettes, a venture that could put millions into government coffers, appears to attract more supporters each year.
"Hundreds of millions (of dollars) redirected for schools, for hospitals," said Joseph Fullmer, a Winnipegger and "standard Canadian working guy" who turned out in a homemade sandwich board calling for taxation and regulation. "Hundreds of millions redirected for better things. How can that not be a benefit? The system is backwards... it allows corruption to benefit, instead of the Canadian people."
He paused, leaning over to offer a grey-haired man in a wheelchair a toke from a big glass bong.
"It's a crying shame that our government allows that."