420 Goes From Counter-Culture to Corporate

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Remember when April 20 meant rolling out of bed and reaching for the bong? Or baking some pot brownies with friends?

Those days are over, man. Now that marijuana is legal for sale and consumption in Colorado, 420 has evolved into more than just a celebration of stoner culture. It’s a business opportunity.


And you don't need to look further than what's cooking in Colorado for the big weekend to see just how commercial the holiday has become. At the top of the list are a couple of high-profile events, both sold out already.

The Cannabis Cup, a marijuana grower competition comes to Denver this weekend ($75 for a two-day wristband). And Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa headline a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre dubbed “Snoop’s Wellness Retreat" ($59.50 for general admission, $100 for VIP).


Those are just the arena-size undertakings. To that, you can add dozens of small business promotions seeking to capitalize on the state’s new stance on pot smoking. How far has it gone? You can even buy 420 greeting cards to commemorate the day with a special someone.

All of this is a sign that the counter-cultural association with marijuana, colored by jazz musicians and hippies decades ago, could be fading away as the drug gains acceptance in society. The new 420 could be more influenced by marketing teams and event promoters than anti-establishment figures.


“The holiday probably is going to look a little bit anachronistic fairly quickly,” said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University. “Would you have a counter-cultural holiday celebrating coffee or Miller beer?”

“It’s about the most mainstream thing in the world now, so probably a lot of people won’t enjoy it anymore,” he added.


Yet the holiday only seems to be rising in prominence. Decades ago, you mostly heard about 420 through word of mouth, hence the proliferation of legends wrongly explaining how the date became famous. Now, it’s competing with Easter Sunday for news headlines.

That’s an argument that while the day may have shed its insider origins, it’s more famous than ever.


Taylor West, the deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, thinks 420 could evolve into more of a gathering of pot aficionados, like a craft brewing competition.

“In Denver, they have the Great American Beer Festival every year and it’s hugely popular and it’s great for the economy,” she said. “I think you may start to see festivals like this.”


The festival vibe is already happening in Colorado. The folks at Hotels.com say they’ve seen a 70 percent increase in searches for Denver accomodations so far this year compared with 2013.

Whether the corporatization of 420 will turn off the pot-as-philosophy crowd is a tougher question to answer. But West thinks there’s room for everyone to enjoy marijuana’s global holiday.


“I think it’s broadening and bringing in a more diverse set of consumers,” she said. “But that doesn’t exclude people who have been part of that culture for a long time.”

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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