Marijuana Legalization Protest Remains Well Attended, Controversial

Last Tuesday, April the 20th, approximately 800 UVM students, Burlington residents and local media gathered on the Redstone Green to protest the legalization of marijuana, and the crackdown in recent years of UVM’s traditional 420 marijuana protest. Twenty law enforcement officials were in attendance.

The protest, an event that in the past has brought upwards of 1,500 students together to smoke marijuana on the library green, was ended three years ago when UVM Police Services began cracking down on the festivities.

A crowd of about 200 students began to gather on the Redstone Green during the late afternoon on Tuesday. The gathering was mostly composed of students playing music throwing frisbees, and anxiously anticipating the oncoming of the iconic 4:20pm.

“I think its great that all these people are gathered here”, said junior Ezra Lipp as he looked upon the growing crowd, “even if people don’t choose to get high, it’s important people get together to voice their opinions”. Organizers of the Redstone gathering had been handing out signs on Tuesday, and putting up flyers during the previous weeks.

The number of protestors grew to an estimated 800 people by 4:15pm. The police presence made itself known as they circled the crowd; closely monitoring and video taping the event as it transpired. The police officers began to impede attempts made by some to “pull in” the crowd and unify by infiltrating and breaking apart some of the denser groups of students.

“The one driving concern for us [last Tuesday] was safety, we didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” said UVM Chief of Police, Gary Margolis. “When you have one person stirring other people up, the crowd stops thinking for themselves and begins to think as one. One of our goals was to be very careful of the kind of activity that turns a large crowd into a mob…that is under the discretion of the officers there. It is not a science it’s an art.”

Three students, Nikolai Sears, Thomas Wheeler, and “Eli C,” all sophomores were detained. One for usage and possession, and the other two for disorderly conduct.

Sears, as he was being escorted away, was able to tell the Vermont Cynic, “All I said was for everybody to get together. I didn’t light up. I’d like to say that this is a testament to the UVM Police, I am being dragged away for bringing people together.” Wheeler, who was arrested shortly after Sears, said “I think people need to stand up for their civil liberties, and I’m glad that so many people came out here.”

“It’s extremely unfortunate that they were arrested [for disorderly conduct].” said SGA President, Joe Thibault. “I support them but it seems like this is one of the unfortunate consequences of protesting.”

All three students were handcuffed, placed in police cars, and taken to the field in front of Southwick Music Hall for the duration of the protest before being taken to the police station.

There were isolated pockets of marijuana smoke arising from the main group of students at the protest, but due to the danger of arrest, most students chose to merely voice their opinions through their presence, rather than smoking marijuana themselves.

Thibault emailed the student body current legislation regarding the usage and possession of marijuana, and the financial consequences of felonious usage and possession. Also included in the email were specifics related to federal student financial aid eligibility if convicted of usage or possession of marijuana.

When interviewed by The Cynic Thibault expressed his support of UVM student gatherings although he reinforced the need to UVM student gatherings to be centered around school spirit in lieu of marijuana.

The term “420” began in the early 1970’s, when a group of California high school students began meeting at 4:20 pm to smoke marijuana. The term has also been attributed to the California penal code for marijuana possession and the number of chemicals in marijuana, but both allegations are incorrect.

At UVM, the annual “420 smoke-out” has been a tradition for almost a decade. Students would gather on the library green to protest the legalization of marijuana by smoking marijuana. Three years ago however, at the request of the Burlington community and concerned UVM alumni and parents, UVM decided to crackdown on the former annual protest.

Springfest was to divert the attention of the 420 protest, with the library green roped off for performances by musical acts. Springfest has also included many other activities ranging from club information and signup tables to free smoothies. Springfest 2003 was sponsored by Volkswagen and a number of other corporate partners.

Although Springfest 2003 was well attended by the UVM student body, this year’s Springfest, however, enjoyed fewer attendees than the rally on Redstone Green. Because of the large turnout on Redstone Green, crowd control became one of the UVM Police Department’s main concerns.

Margolis emphasized that the importance of controlling the crowd, citing the problems associated with large public gatherings and their unpredictability. Although Margolis expressed concern about the number of students gathered on Redstone Green, he questioned the political legitimacy of the rally.

One UVM Police officer roamed the crowd with a camcorder filming the events. According to Margolis, the film will be used as training examples of effective crowd control. And if anything had gone wrong they could look back at the tape and analyze the situation and what could have been done differently.

Many students in attendance saw last Tuesday’s gathering as an exercise in what many have come to consider a peaceful protest. UVM students interviewed by local media outlets reinforced the peaceful nature of the rally. Although many present during last Tuesday’s protest advocated the legalization of marijuana, only a few chose to smoke marijuana at the rally itself.

The crowd began to slowly disperse from Redstone Green after it became apparent that the protesters had achieved their desired goal. The three detained students however, were still handcuffed behind their backs on their knees, in front of a police car by the Southwick Green.

When The Vermont Cynic asked them what they were being charged with, detained UVM student Nikolai Sears felt at the time that neither the students nor the police knew, for in his eyes, they had not actually committed any obvious crimes.

“Potentially I could incite a riot because I brought people together”, said Sears.

Following the protest, two of the students were arrested for inciting a riot, and one for possession and use of marijuana. The future of the 420 marijuana legalization protest at UVM seems to be anything but slowly fading away to nothing more than a memory.

When Thomas Wheeler asked his arresting officer as he was being dragged away, “Why the change?” The officer responded, “I guess it’s just a change in philosophy”.