Culture

“It’s Like Christmas For Potheads”: Up Close At Melbourne’s 420 Picnic

"The 420 events have allowed people a glimpse of what life is like when you're not oppressed."

Flagstaff Gardens is the oldest park in Melbourne. The 18-acre stretch in the northeast of the CBD is a popular lunch spot for local office workers and tourists. It’s a tranquil respite from rapid city living which encircles the vast greenery. But, if you venture down to the gardens on April 20, you’ll be greeted by thousands of people sitting peacefully amongst the avenues of eucalypts and elm trees chatting jovially, lazing around, and smoking marijuana.

April 20 is 420 day; an annual day for stoners from all walks of life to come together in celebration of the glorious plant. It’s like Christmas, but for potheads. Weedmas, if you will. And yesterday I checked it out for myself.

The first thing that stands out as you enter the gardens is the sheer variety of people — some are in suits, others are decked out in ponchos. Each person sits against the next like erratic brushstrokes coming together to form an impressionist painting. It’s a micro-society of stoners — all celebrating and defending an illegal substance they stress is much safer than pretty much all the legal highs available on the current market.

Matt Riley, the local organiser of these picnics, is an adamant believer that prohibition hurts good people. He tells me the occasional joint or bong hit every now and then shouldn’t have you labelled a criminal. Because of this, he brings people together every year to collectively blaze in peaceful protest against marijuana prohibition. The picnic is also intended as a showcase of the love and acceptance that exists in Melbourne’s cannabis community.

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“Mate, its bloody ridiculous,” a 29-year-old office worker tells me. He stumbled upon the picnic by chance on his lunch break. “It’s 2017, and you’re telling me we’re still putting people in jail because of this harmless plant… It frustrates me,” he says, shaking his head. He lights up a cigarette and continues.

“What I’m breathing in right now is so fucking bad for me, if the government really gave half a shit this wouldn’t be legal that’s for sure. Look around, gotta be at least 2,000 people here — imagine all these people sinking beers — it would be chaos. Utter chaos. Yet here we are, under the sun, sitting together peacefully. Honestly, it’s a joke and I’m getting way too angry talking about it. All I can say is hopefully someone calling the shots wakes up to themselves so the police can focus on the real criminals.”

“It’s only a matter of time before this country does what’s right, and that’s legalising it.”

22-year-old Amanda echoes these sentiments. “I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket in my life, I get paranoid when there’s security guards at Coles even though I haven’t stolen anything, that’s how goody goody I am,” she says. Her friend passes her a joint and she takes two puffs and passes it to another friend.

“What I just did is not criminal. Guarantee you most of these cops walking around have smoked it back in their day. It’s becoming legal all over the world; the real information is all out there. It’s only a matter of time before this country does what’s right, and that’s legalising it.”

I continue to walk the gardens and chat with many more stoners and non-stoners alike, the overwhelming sentiment is one of solidarity, everyone here is coming together for the same cause, and organiser Matt Riley couldn’t be happier with the turnout.

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“Today’s been great, I’ve been really pleased,” he says. Only 24 hours prior, Riley had expressed concern about an alleged crackdown by authorities on the annual picnic, but the day itself was devoid of incident.

“Despite the new directive that the police have been given [which was to enforce the law this year] they continued to basically treat us with a great show of respect,” says Riley. “They tried as hard as they could to avoid intervening and I think at the end of the day we’ve only had a handful of people who have been given cautions. Everyone’s been pretty peaceful. Everyone’s happy, there’s been no dramas. All in all, I’m very pleased.”

Growing acceptance of medicinal cannabis has put legal recreational weed on the national agenda, with Australian parliament having passed laws to permit the manufacture of medical cannabis at a national level early last year, albeit not exactly useful for the average garage stoner, it is a great first step for complete decriminalisation.

“Right now, ‘medical marijuana’ is making some progress federally and in most states,” Riley tells me. “But it’s not exactly genuine reform. It favours the big corporations. There’s some promising legislation before the NSW parliament currently which includes allowing the use of ‘crude cannabis’ but every other bit of ‘reform’ so far has been aimed at demonising all but pharmaceutical cannabis products.”

“The 420 events have allowed people a glimpse of what life is like when you’re not oppressed.”

Despite the less than ideal outlook for recreational legalisation anytime soon, Riley believes the the tangible benefits of yesterday’s protest are clear. “Over the years, the 420 events have allowed people a glimpse of what life is like when you’re not oppressed,” he says. “Police attitudes have changed considerably too. Officers who attended yesterday were much friendlier and far less intimidating than when the events first began.”

The growing calls for decriminalisation in Australia are part of a global trend, with Canada having recently announced they’ll be joining a list of reefer-friendly nations that already includes Uruguay, Spain, and The Netherlands. Legalisation in the US looks promising too, with states such as Colorado and California leading the full decriminalisation charge. In Europe, Germany appears to be planning for impending legalisation for medical use, while the Republic of Ireland recently voted to also allow medicinal use in late 2016.

As the sun begins to set on Flagstaff Gardens and the crowd begins to thin, I find a quiet spot away from the noise to sit down and have a chat with 27-year-old William, who had come to the picnic on his own. “I’ve been perched here most of the day, I’ve got some stuff going on and needed some time to think,” he explains. “It’s the best thing I could’ve done; I haven’t smoked anything today but I feel high just from seeing so many happy people in one place.”

The sun is gone, and we both watch the crowd of people for a few moments before he adds, “I think this is honestly one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. Today’s changed my perspective on so much —  everyone is like one big family. It’s so simple. Legalise it.”

All images: David Allegretti.

David Allegretti very much enjoys converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. You may remember him from such publications as VICE, The Age, and Global Hobo. Tweet him banana bread pics at @davidallegretti.