Today is the Fourth of July of weed.
At places such as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Porter Meadow at UC Santa Cruz and Redwood Park in Arcata, thousands will light up in celebratory smoke-ins.
The collective marijuana smoke, honoring April 20 and the "420" numeric nickname for pot, will thicken right around 4:20 p.m.
That's when this most unusual of holidays pays tribute to the legend of a group of 1970s high school students in San Rafael, who gathered at 4:20 p.m. every day to smoke marijuana.
April 20 has morphed into a social, political and cultural event, with 4/20 fests lighting up college towns and urban centers from Seattle to Boulder, Colo., to New York City.
In San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, people are showing up and toking up, drawn by piqued awareness of the day and energized by a November ballot initiative seeking to legalize marijuana for recreational use in California.
"People are coming to Haight-Ashbury like the Grateful Dead is back in town," said longtime resident Jack Rikess. "They're walking down the street and smoking joints. It's going to be unreal. This could be the last illegal 4/20 in San Francisco."
Last week, UC Santa Cruz put out a notice about "an unsanctioned and unwelcome 4/20 gathering … that is likely going to be disruptive for many on campus and in the surrounding community."
But university officials are resigned to it happening.
In recent years, throngs of students and residents from Santa Cruz and beyond have gathered like football tailgaters, filling the air with smoke and pro-pot revelry.
University spokesman Barry Shiller said campus police "are going to keep an eye out for behavior that overtly demands their attention." But he said they will neither stop the event nor keep people from smoking pot.
The celebrations anger anti-drug-abuse advocates.
"This is a sad day," said Carla Lowe, who founded Californians for Drug Free Youth and now heads a political committee fighting marijuana legalization. "This whole thing is bogus. It's a fraud, a fad.
"Why do we find more kids smoking pot than cigarettes? I mean, they're taught in school that cigarettes are bad. I'm furious what this celebration is saying."
Even some marijuana advocates are leery of 4/20 revelry.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks alternatives to the drug war, penned a special 4/20 column. Calling for Americans to roll back pot laws, he wrote: "Don't just smoke a joint on 4/20 – take action against marijuana prohibition."
While the 4:20 p.m. smoking circles in San Rafael are widely accepted as the origin of the day, some people believe that "420" also symbolizes the more than 400 ingredients in cannabis.
The number is so revered in the pot world that when the California Legislature passed a 2003 bill governing medical marijuana distribution, it was Senate Bill 420. Last week state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, returned a reporter's call on a pot bill he is carrying at precisely 4:20 p.m.
Medical marijuana use has been legal in California since 1996. And California's burgeoning medical pot dispensaries will flower with 4/20 events today.
In Sacramento, the El Camino Wellness Center will offer an eighth of an ounce of marijuana – normally $60 – for $4.20 to anyone buying two other "eighths." It will also feature music and giveaways such as microwaveable pot popcorn.
"When I was younger, this was a party day," said Sonny Kumar, the center's co-founder. "Now, it's patient appreciation day."
Ford Kuramoto, executive director of a Los Angeles anti-drug-abuse group serving Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, said 4/20 has become a near corporate-style event for cannabis industries.
"This is reminiscent of advertising campaigns that the tobacco and the alcohol industries engage in," Kuramoto said.
In Arcata, medical marijuana activist Mariellen Jurkovich, director of the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, will be out urging people not to smoke.
For hundreds of people at Arcata's Redwood Park, she'll demonstrate her smokeless vaporizers and juices that deliver "medicine" without lighting up.
"We want to educate people on the healthier ways they might want to ingest cannabis," Jurkovich said.
Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.