Every April 20 in San Francisco — at about 20 minutes past 4 p.m. — a giant cloud of smoke rises from the eastern end of Golden Gate Park, where thousands of people congregate to celebrate and consume their drug of choice.
Cannabis, marijuana, weed.
The unofficial, unpermitted celebration in Sharon Meadow has grown significantly in recent years, from a few hundred happy campers a decade ago to thousands of people — perhaps as many as 10,000, as there is no “official” count — swarming Stanyan Street from the Haight-Ashbury to Hippie Hill in the park, according to residents.
There, barbecues and even bands with amplified sound complement the inevitable beach ball bouncing above a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, with participants arriving as early as 10 or 11 in the morning and lingering well past 5 p.m.
This year’s crowd is expected to be the biggest ever, said Ted Lowenberg, a longtime neighborhood resident who serves as president of the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association.
“There are thousands of people who come through this neighborhood,” he said. “And they’re stoned.”
All the green, however, does not come free of charge.
Organizers of events in Golden Gate Park are charged a fee to cover cleanup and security costs. Since there is no organizer of the April 20 event, city taxpayers are stuck with the bill.
“A crowd of this size will have an impact on the grass,” said Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Sarah Ballard, who estimated the cost for officers from her agency at $6,500 and staff time for gardeners and cleanup crews — who will need “four days” to remove all the litter left by revelers — at $4,080.
Police have earned a remarkably tolerant reputation for the illegal activity going on in The City’s backyard, though past events have not been entirely peaceful.
Most calls to first responders are for medical emergencies, officials have said, though a 16-year old was stabbed in the arm last year and in 2011, a 47-year old woman was bashed in the head with a portable radio.
The event “does attract a criminal element,” said veteran police Capt. Greg Corrales, the former chief of the department’s narcotics division who is now commanding officer at Park Station, just across Kezar Drive from Hippie Hill.
In the past, people leaving the event have committed vandalism or other petty crimes in surrounding neighborhoods. This year, thanks to the power of Facebook, there are “known gang members who have RSVP’d for this thing,” Corrales said.
“We are prepared for their arrival,” he said, noting that extra officers, including the department’s unit of dirt bikes, will be deployed to the park. Since they are officers who would be on duty at other locations, there’s no additional cost, Corrales said.
Possession of marijuana is officially a low priority for San Francisco police, but Corrales warned that “there will be zero tolerance” for anyone attempting to sell the drug.