Mudslinging and hot air in 4/20 aftermath

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This photo of Sunset Beach, taken on the morning of April 23, shows the level of damage caused by the 4/20 gathering at the beach three days earlier. Photograph By Dan Toulgoet

The mud at Sunset Beach is nowhere near as significant as it was this time last year, but the mud-slinging is.

The days following last Friday’s 4/20 rally have seen every manner of accusation, from partisan politics to talk of legal action.

The most recent development was a suggestion by the city Monday that it may pursue legal action to recover costs from the rally organizers, the Vancouver 4/20 Event Society.

Figures from last Friday aren’t yet available, but last year’s bill from the city, split between the Sunset rally and a separate gathering at the Vancouver Art Gallery, checked in at $245,000 — $170,600 for policing, $34,600 for the park board and $25,000 for engineering-related expenses.

“While the city supports the right for individuals to protest and does not want cost to be a barrier to a protest, we expect commercial activity like the 4/20 event to cover the total costs incurred,” city spokesperson Jag Sandhu told the Courier in an email. “We are continuing to look into that issue with legal counsel.”

The Vancouver Park Board sent the 4/20 society a bill for almost $67,000 last year, which included staffing costs, facility closures and field repairs, among others.

Society co-founder Dana Larsen ended up paying about $7,000 to cover the damaged field. Other line items from the board’s bill included $32,000 in staffing costs and close to $8,000 in lost revenues from the closure of Vancouver Aquatic Centre and the nearby concession stand.

Larsen refused to pay staffing costs for park board or city employees who were slated to work the event anyway, though he’s since changed that stance and has pledged to pay for pretty much everything outside of the VPD’s tab.

“We’ve told the city we’ll cover their costs for everything except policing — all the traffic, sanitation, engineering and whatnot,” Larsen told the Courier Monday.

This year’s rally generated more money than any other in the event’s 25-year history. About 300 vendors paid between $500 and $750 for vendor space. That alone translates to roughly $200,000 and Larsen says he’s prepared to write the city a cheque for somewhere around $50,000 if need be. His group spent about $150,000 in pre-rally costs that covered security, ambulances and protective covers for the field.

“Considering that amount of revenue they should be paying back to the costs,” Mayor Gregor Robertson told reporters Monday. “It’s a significant cost particularly to the park board and it’s not really fair to make everyone else in the city to have to cover those costs when so much money is changing hands at an event.”

Larsen’s intent is to make 4/20 a cost-neutral event and says previous rallies have always lost money. If there’s a surplus after he pays the city and the park board, he said all that money will go to charity. Last week, his group donated $4,200 each to St. Paul’s Hospital and the Vancouver Fire Department’s Snacks for Kids program.

The Vancouver Police Department estimates about 40,000 attendees were at the park this year and in 2017. No major incidents were reported, though two arrests were made: one for assault and weapons charges and the other for a breaching of release conditions.

Emergency Health Services attended to 23 medical emergencies, 10 overdose calls and eight people were taken to hospital for further treatment.

Larsen’s change of tune, at least on the financial side, is of little concern to Green Party park board chair Stuart Mackinnon. In an interview Tuesday, he maintained the stance that 4/20 will not receive a special permit license due to the board’s ban on smoking in parks and the damage done after each event.

While park board staff do liaise and pre-plan with the 4/20 group, Mackinnon has no interest in talking to Larsen personally so long as the rally remains at Sunset Beach.

“If he was willing to say to me, ‘You’re right Stuart, Sunset isn’t the place, help us find somewhere else,’ I would be willing to do that,” Mackinnon said.
“But Dana says they’re going to Sunset, so there is no conversation there.”

Mackinnon acknowledged the damage done this year is less severe than in 2017, when the park’s fields were closed for 10 weeks. A similar timeline was offered the day after 4/20, then modified to six weeks on April 23. That six-week figure is a weather dependent, best-case scenario that will be extended in the event of prolonged rain. The field is currently fenced off because foot traffic will lengthen the timeframe needed for the field’s renewal.

When asked about the potential for legal action, Mackinnon offered this:

“I wish the city luck, maybe they have more powers than we do,” he said.

The Courier was at Sunset Beach Monday morning and again in the evening. About 10 people passed through the fencing and were tossing Frisbees and playing soccer, activities that Mackinnon said will exacerbate the damage done.

Park users who spoke to the Courier generally agreed upon one thing: parking and traffic flow in the West End on 4/20 is a nightmare. Otherwise, their opinions were mixed on 4/20’s place at Sunset Beach.

“I think it’s a good event,” said Kriston Palmer, who at 43 is a life-long West End resident and 4/20 participant. “I think it needs to be fenced off because it should be a 19-plus event. Minors walking into the event is an issue the city needs to deal with. Other than that I think we need space to be able to have this.”

Philip Norman has lived in the West End for four years. “If they could have it someplace else, that would be better,” he said “I don’t understand the 10-week closure. The damage looks pretty sparse. This field is used a lot anyhow, so it’s going to get some degradation obviously.”

Harald Veerman has lived three blocks from Sunset Beach for the better part of 30 years. He’s a cannabis user, but believes the event should move back to the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“There is a no smoking ban in the park. From that perspective, I kind of get where the park board is coming from,” Veerman said. “We are smoking in the park, and that’s not allowed. We are breaking the law and that’s agreed upon.”

Larsen says impending cannabis legalization doesn’t go far enough, in that edibles, extracts and medicinal products will remain illegal for at least a year after the bill is made law.

And barring any significant changes, Larsen says 4/20 will be back at Sunset Beach again next year.

“I can almost guarantee we’ll be a Sunset Beach again,” he said. “I don’t say that out of arrogance or trying to be difficult I say that because there’s nowhere else to go.”

@JohnKurucz

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