DENVER — The march toward marijuana legalization may have stumbled Saturday with the eruption of gunshots at a massive pot-smoking festival held in the aftermath of Colorado’s decriminalization vote.
Three people were injured after gunfire pierced the smoky haze at the nation’s largest marijuana celebration here at Civic Center Park. A man and a woman were hit in their legs by bullets, while a juvenile was grazed by a shot during the annual 4/20 festival.
Denver police referred the shooting Sunday to the department’s gang unit. Authorities released descriptions of two suspects, but no arrests had been made as of late Sunday.
“It’s an active and ongoing investigation,” Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said Sunday. “We’re going to hopefully speak to the victims today and see if they saw anything.”
This year’s 4/20 celebration, an international cannabis jamboree, drew record crowds among those eager to celebrate the passage of Amendment 64 in November. Colorado and Washington voters approved initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older.
Even so, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has yet to say whether he will allow the states to skirt federal anti-drug laws, and Saturday’s shooting probably didn’t help matters.
“If organizers wanted to give the feds a reason to come raid Colorado, they succeeded,” said Jessica Peck, a Denver lawyer and marijuana-decriminalization advocate.
While enormous smoke-outs such as 4/20 may have once benefited the legalization movement, she said, the specter of thousands of smokers lighting up in public parks now hurts pot’s public image, even without gunfire.
Ms. Peck said “the vast majority of legitimate industry condemns these events,” but most people watching television coverage of the event will see instead images of “a 30-year-old stoner … rambling about how great pot is.”
“This whole episode will take legalization efforts several steps backward,” said Ms. Peck, who campaigned in favor of Amendment 64. “Highly publicized incidents of violence universally play into the hands of opposition who have nothing more than emotional anecdotes like this to rely upon as the basis for convincing voters to support our continued seven-decade failed prohibition experiment.”
Certainly the local television footage was unnerving. Helicopter cameras showed the enormous crowd surging away from the park’s Greek theater stage and onto surrounding streets as gunshots were heard.
Smart Colorado, a group formed to limit marijuana use and sales, issued a statement hours before the shooting encouraging Coloradans to “pay attention to the 4/20 rallies.”
“These events, which will be covered by national media, will send a clear message to the rest of the nation and the world about what Colorado looks like in the wake of the passage of Amendment 64 last fall,” said Smart Colorado volunteer leader Henny Lasley.
Joe Megysey, a spokesman for the Amendment 64 campaign, agreed that the shooting was bad for the legalization effort’s image, although he pointed out that there was a Denver park shooting last year at a jazz festival that had nothing to do with marijuana.
“I don’t believe this is a marijuana problem, I think it’s a gang problem,” Mr. Megysey said.