A Short History of Denver’s 420 Festival

Denver’s last 420 festival was April 20th, 2019 – three years ago! As with many other things in our lives, the festival has been put on hold during the pandemic. The 2020 festival was on track (with rapper Lil’ Jon scheduled to headline) until COVID-19 led to its cancelation just a month before the event.

rapper big boi at denver's 420 marijuana festival
Rapper Big Boi performs

In 2022, the Mile High 420 Festival returns to Civic Center Park in downtown Denver in a much more organized and corporate fashion than festivals of years past. Musical acts this year include headliner Big Boi, Lil’ Jon (again), and Talib Kweli.

As the largest, one of the longest-running, annual cannabis-related gatherings on April 20th, Denver’s 420 event has evolved significantly over time. What started as a small gathering to protest marijuana laws has become a full-blown festival with concerts, vendor booths, and of course – plenty of weed! Here now is a brief history of the 420 festival in Denver, Colorado.

What’s “420”?

If you’re reading this, you’re likely more than familiar with what 420 means. But where did the term come from? The most commonly circulated theory is that it was California law enforcement’s call signal for marijuana consumption crimes. (As in, “We’ve got a 420 in progress on High St.”) There has been no evidence to confirm this theory, however.

The only substantiated claim is that came from a group of California high school students in the 1970s who would meet up after at San Rafael High School to smoke together. 4:20 pm being the time that they would meet after school got out.

The term reached national popularity in cannabis culture, the story goes, by way of the Grateful Dead. One of these high schoolers’ older brothers was a road manager for the band. The kidgot to go on tour with the Dead one summer and introduced everyone to the “420” code. And the rest .. is history.

The Fight to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

The roots of Denver’s 420 festival in its current location trace back to marijuana activist, and once Colorado Gubantorial candidate, Ken Gorman. A Denver native, Vietnam veteran, and passionate marijuana legalization activist, Gorman began hosting April 20th “smoke-in” sessions on the steps of the state capital building starting in 1992.

Man Holds Sign At denver Rally Supporting Marijuana Legalizati
Before 2012, the rallies were more politically motivated – pushing for marijuana legalization.

These rallies grew year over year (despite Gorman’s murder in 2007). In 2011, the last year that cannabis possession was still illegal in Colorado, the rally drew several thousand people.


As cannabis became legal in our state, what was rally began to move from its political roots and transform into more of a festival and cultural celebration. The 2013 festival, the first for which possession was legal in Colorado, drew an estimated 80,000 people, with many making pilgrimages from around the country to participate.

That year, the festival was marred by a shooting in which three people were injured. To this day, it stands as the only significant security event in the gathering’s history.

When the sale of cannabis became legal in Colorado in 2014, the festival began to transition again into the commercialized event that it is today.

Growing Pains Amongst the Marijuana Smoke in Civic Center Park

In addition to the two years off due the pandemic, there have been some other problems along the way for the Denver 420 festival. In 2017, there was an issue regarding trash pick-up after the event. The city awoke on April 21st to find Civic Center Park strewn with trash. Organizers claimed that they had cleaned up the park by the required time stated on the permit and that the park had been trashed afterwards. Nonetheless, the incident resulted in public scorn and a three-year permit ban for long-time organizer Miguel Lopez.

Mile High 420 Festival 2022

This year, the event has been re-branded once again. What has been called the FlyHi 420 Festival since 2018, now has a more practical name: Mile High 420 Festival. It is now organized by Euflora dispensary and FlyHi delivery service.

This year’s 4/20 event will have a similar feel to those that occurred before the pandemic, according to FlyHi, continuing a standing tradition at Civic Center Park. There will be some modifications, however: because of a local noise regulation, visitors won’t be allowed through the gates until noon, but it will also stay open until 9 p.m. this year.

The Mile High event, which is open to everyone, will feature two stages and several 21+ tents for alcohol sales, as well as food trucks and product vendors. At the northwest end of the park, a main stage will be used for headliners, while a lesser stage in the Greek Amphitheater will showcase to-be-announced local artists all day long.

Get everything you need for 4/20 at Frost Denver Dispensary.

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