News & Views

Policing of 420 in the Park

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) provides the below report regarding the policing of the 420 in the Park event.


On Saturday 20 April 2024 MALS fielded a team of four trained legal observers at the ‘420 in the Park’ event at Flagstaff Gardens, West Melbourne, Victoria. ‘420 In the Park’ is an annual event run by Legalise Cannabis Victoria calling for an end to discrimination and advocating for the legalisation of cannabis in Victoria.

Legal observers were present from 2.00pm to 5.20pm. The team was present upon request by the event organisers after concerns raised relating to the police response to the event over the last few years (see this Fitzroy Legal Service report on the 2023 event).

Around 200 people gathered throughout the afternoon for the protest rally.



Throughout the day, legal observers noted the below observations.

Victoria Police’s operational response to the 420 rally continues to be excessive

While the policing was notably reduced from previous years, legal observers noted the following police resources were present throughout the day:

  • approximately 35 police officers throughout the park
  • drug detection dogs
  • three on-site tents to process arrested persons
  • a mobile van office
  • multiple marked police cars parked around Flagstaff Gardens

Police were observed moving throughout the gardens and crowds performing searches and arresting people to take them back to a temporary processing area set up for the event.

Legal observers noted several attendees were surrounded by multiple officers while being questioned, which was disproportionate to any possible threat that the person was posing.

Multiple attendees of the event advised MALS that this level of response from the police impacted their ability to express their political views, and deterred others from attending the event completely.

Legal observers noted a heightened sense of fear and anxiety from both the attendees of the event, and bystanders who were passing through the gardens.

Police searched attendees multiple times throughout the day, including people holding valid medical cannabis prescriptions

Legal observers noted that police initiated searches on people multiple times throughout the day, even if they had been searched previously and presented a valid medical cannabis prescription. When questioned about this, the Forward Commander advised MALS and one of the organisers that all indications from a police drug detection dog will result in a search, as the detection dogs were unable to differentiate between cannabis and other drugs, so the officers were required to check if the person had other drugs in their possession. Police also advised MALS they did not have the resources to record who had already been searched previously, meaning some attendees were searched multiple times throughout the day.

Legal observers noted some attendees and other bystanders watching people being searched were visibly upset and many people left the area shortly after.

Victorian Police searches and arrests often appeared random

Legal observers noted that throughout the day the police response to attendees who were visibly smoking changed and was often unpredictable. During the initial part of the event (while the numbers of attendees were low) the police took a ‘zero tolerance’ approach and arrested multiple attendees. At the height of attendance (coinciding with a countdown to 4:20pm), legal observers noted that all police pulled back and remained at the police tents, and no arrests or searches took place despite large numbers of attendees smoking.

After the number of attendees decreased, police resumed walking through the remaining groups of attendees and began searching and arresting people again; however. it was not clear how police selected who to search or arrest. Legal observers also noted that while some officers searched and arrested people, other officers allowed attendees to smoke uninterrupted.



MALS notes the following excerpts from Victorian Police Drug Strategy (VPDS) and other communications:

  • “Victoria Police recognises that drug problems are first and foremost health issues. By taking a health-focused approach, police are empowered to respond to an individual’s circumstances, environment and life stage. This enables policing approaches that reduce harm and keep the community safe.” (Victoria Police Drug Strategy 2020-2025, p 18)
  • “Under the [drug] strategy, Victoria Police will focus on the drugs causing the most harm within the community, arrest and prosecute drug dealers, disrupt drug networks, and work with the community and our partners to ensure those suffering from addiction are connected to appropriate treatment and support services.” (Victoria Police website)

The Victorian Police response to the ‘420 in the Park’ event appears to contradict the strategy stated in the VPDS, which states that Victoria Police will focus on drugs causing the most harm, and arrest and prosecute drug dealers, and disrupt drug networks.

Legal observers noted police continue to focus police resources on cannabis consumers on suspicion of use and possession. Large numbers of searches and arrests took place throughout the day, targeting cannabis users. Some people found with suspected illicit substances without a valid medical prescription were arrested and taken back to a police tent to be further searched and issued with a warning. No one that legal observers spoke with were issued with a fine.

Additionally, the VPDS states that Victoria Police is committed to supporting harm reduction principles. However, the police response to the rally did not appear to support a public health-based response to drug use. For example, it did not appear that people who were arrested and given a warning relating to the use and possession of illicit substances were provided with any harm reduction information.

The ‘420 in the Park’ event was a political event where organisers and attendees were advocating for legislative change to legalise cannabis use in Victoria. Those in support of this issue should have been able to peacefully assemble at the rally and freely express this view. MALS maintains that they should have been able to do this free from fear, intimidation or the threat of being searched by police.

The large police response and ‘zero tolerance’ approach to policing this event caused organisers and attendees to feel intimidated. Many attendees and people using the park were young people who are more vulnerable to police intimidation. Multiple people spoke with legal observers and stated that the heavy police presence had prevented their friends from attending. Legal observers also noted many attendees chose to leave the event early after noticing the large number of police officers and multiple drug detection drugs that were present.

The right to protest is a human right, protected in Victoria under sections 15 and 16 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The freedom to express political views, popular or unpopular, including through peaceful assembly in public spaces, is legally protected as a fundamental democratic right.

In light of the fact that cannabis use and possession are low-level offences, the purported commitment to harm reduction objectives in the VPDS, and the peaceful nature of the event, the tactical and operational decisions by Victoria Police to respond to the ‘420 in the Park’ event in an intimidating and punitive manner gave rise to an unreasonable and unjustified interference with the right to protest.

In the situation presented by the ‘420 in the Park’ event, a harm minimising approach – whereby police exercise their powers of discretion not to investigate drug offences – would have been consistent with community expectations, Victoria Police policy and Victoria Police’s obligations to promote and protect human rights under the Charter.

At future ‘420 in the Park’ events, MALS recommends that Victoria Police adopt a stronger harm-reduction approach and exercise their powers of discretion not to investigate minor drug possession offences, down scaling their presence to focus on the provision of health promotion information, and protecting attendee’s rights to protest. MALS maintains this would be more consistent with community expectations, Victoria Police policy, and Victoria Police’s obligations to promote and protect human rights under the Charter.

For inquiries regarding this report, please contact MALS at [email protected]

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

is an independent volunteer group of lawyers, human rights advocates, law students and para-legals. MALS trains and fields Legal Observer Teams at protest events, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and distributes legal resources for social movements. MALS works in conjunction with law firms, community legal centres, and a range of local, national, and international human rights agencies. We stand up for civil and political rights.

Learn More »