By KRISTEN WYATT
FILE – This April 20, 2012 file photo shows a cloud of smoke covering the crowd at the Denver 420 rally in Civic Center Park. Denver Police are bracing for this year’s event on Saturday, April 20, 2013 which is expected to draw a record crowd of 80,000 people. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Daniel Petty, File)
DENVER (AP) — Gunfire erupted at a Denver park Saturday, injuring two people and sending tens of thousands gathered for an annual pot celebration fleeing the area, police said.
A crowd of marijuana smokers expected to swell to 80,000 had gathered at the park to mark the counterculture holiday known as 4/20 on the first celebration since Colorado and Washington made pot legal for recreational use. The shooting happened at about 5 p.m. and shortly after pot smokes shared hugs and joints in a mass 4:20 p.m. smoke-out.
Police spokesman Sonny Jackson confirmed two people had been shot and both were taken to a hospital with injuries that did not appear to be life-threating. The gunshots quickly dispelled the festive atmosphere, with police swarming the scene.
Witnesses said they heard three or more shots and crime tape was around the pavilion where the celebration was being held.
Aerial footage showed the massive crowd frantically running from the park.
A sizable police force on motorcycles and horses had been watching the celebration. But officers didn’t arrest people for smoking in public, which is still illegal.
Ian Bay, who was skateboarding through Civic Center Park when shots erupted, said he was listening to music on his headphones when he looked to his right and saw a swarm of hundreds of people running at him.
“I sort of panicked. I thought I was going through an anxiety thing because so many people were coming after me,” he said.
Before the shooting, reggae music filled the air, and so did the smell of marijuana, as celebrants gathered by mid-morning in the park just beside the state Capitol.
Authorities generally look the other way at public pot smoking here on April 20. Police said this week before the event that they were focused on crowd security in light of attacks that killed three at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
“We’re aware of the events in Boston,” said Denver police spokesman Aaron Kafer, who declined to give specifics about security measures being taken. “Our message to the public is that, if you see something, say something.”
Nationwide, group smoke-outs were planned Saturday from New York to San Francisco. The origins of the number “420” as a code for pot are murky, but the drug’s users have for decades marked the date 4/20 as a day to use pot together.
Colorado and Washington are still waiting for a federal response to the votes and are working on setting up commercial pot sales, which are still limited to people with certain medical conditions. In the meantime, pot users are free to share and use the drug in small amounts.
A citizen advocacy group that opposes marijuana legalization, Smart Colorado, warned in a statement that public 4/20 celebrations “send a clear message to the rest of the nation and the world about what Colorado looks like.”
“Does the behavior of the participants in these events reflect well on our state?” asked the head of Smart Colorado, Henny Lasley.
Associated Press writer Catherine Tsai contributed to this report.