There is normally at least some sort of police disruption of the annual 4/20 celebrations in London’s Hyde Park as thousands from across the UK convene to commit an act of mass civil disobedience by smoking cannabis, in protest against laws which make criminals of recreational users.
But this year, the police have – allegedly – promised explicitly not to arrest any peaceful weed connoisseurs. That’s a first.
“When people are willing to stand together, the law has to keep up with what’s going on and we don’t have to fear prohibition,” says Marwan Elgamal, founder of lifestyle brand THC, who also books speakers for the 4/20 rally at Hyde Park.
“Things are changing because of it in the UK, just slower than in much of the rest of the world. Everyone’s tired of hearing that [weed’s] not legal so we kind of act like it is – especially since there is a medical legal format now. This year is the first time [the police] have said to me in our [pre-4/20] meeting that they won't be arresting anyone who is peacefully protesting and not causing any trouble.”
When asked for comment the Met offered the following statement: “It’s important that people have the right to peacefully protest, it is also important that there are consequences for those who break the law. Officers will focus efforts on people committing serious offences.
“However drug misuse is breaking the law and individuals using drugs, even if peacefully protesting, cannot expect to be exempt from policing.”
The crowd at 4/20 in Hyde Park, London in 2019. Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
4/20 traces its origins to American students who met to smoke joints and search for cannabis fields at 4.20PM. Their routine somehow snowballed into a global movement which culminates on 20th April (4/20 in US-format date abbreviation). The all day smoke-up, which will ensue across many time zones, unifies oppressed stoners in one collective, defiant cloud of smoke.
Experts are unsure when exactly 4/20 was roundly adopted as the UK’s premiere weed-related shindig. They suspect it gradually seeped into the culture thanks to the popularity of US hip-hop music in the 90s.
“I imagine someone just said ‘Yeah, cool. We’ll do the same over here and light one up at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park’,” speculates Elgamal. A thread on the uk420 message board suggests 4/20 at Hyde Park may have begun as far back as in 2010.
What we do know is that 4/20 is far from the first UK-based, weed related mass protest. On 28th March, 1998, the Independent on Sunday newspaper organised a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square as part of its campaign to decriminalise weed.
It was reported as having 16,000 attendees, making it the largest weed-related event since a 1967 rally at the west London park amid a campaign led by the Beatles to legalise weed in the face of tightening cannabis laws. “London’s Hyde Park becomes a hippie festival as 3,000 so-called flower children gather to preach love, peace and legalised pot,” said one newsreader of the 60s do.
“[Trafalgar] Square was bathed in sunshine and full of people sitting around getting stoned,” writes the UK Cannabis Internet Activist site of the 1998 rally. “It was a nice day out and marked the start of the really big movement to free the weed.”
Since then, the legalisation movement has grown steadily in the UK, with a number of annual 1st May – “Jay Day” – festivals taking place in Brixton’s Brockwell Park from 1999 onward, as well as a hotchpotch of activist-led events, such as the giving of free hash cakes at Speakers Corner on 28th September, 2004, to mark the anniversary of cannabis prohibition. A group, some of whom were possibly under the influence of the cakes, then reportedly marched to a local police station and left a cannabis plant on the desk.
Perhaps in a subtle illustration of the influence of American culture on Britain, 4/20 gradually clasped the mantle as an unrivalled focus of the year’s campaigning and smoking, where legalisation sounds a clarion call.
A sign in Hyde Park on 4/20 day. Photo: See Li / Alamy Stock Photo
“We’d go up to Hyde Park with a suitcase full of flyers and maybe some T-shirts to sell to raise some money and raise awareness of what we were doing,” says Alex Fraser, who works to improve patient access at UK medical cannabis company Grow Pharma and first attended London’s 4/20 event in 2013.
Fraser, who told Good Morning Britain in 2016 that cannabis significantly reduces symptoms of his Crohn's disease, sparing him intolerable pain and nausea, estimates several thousand attended that year: “It was already massive.”
Numbers have continued to grow and for several years now tens of thousands have collectively gathered across the UK – from Plymouth to Glasgow – on 20th April, as attitudes towards cannabis soften amid growing acceptance of its therapeutic qualities and the dialling down of “reefer madness” narratives.
“These grassroots events are where you meet like-minded people, including patients, who you can come together with to raise awareness and create change,” says Fraser.
Indeed, Fraser says he met fellow activist Clark French at a Green Pride festival in Brighton in 2014 and with others they set up the United Patients Alliance, which played an important role in events leading up to the UK’s legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018. “It was crucial to have these events in the first place. With cannabis being illegal, we couldn’t meet up in a pub.”
How things have changed. Now, the stoners – and some suits who have never even smoked a joint – are meeting up at city law firm offices and prestigious venues to strategise. Last week, a report masterminded by lobbyists Hanway Associates declared on the basis of a relatively small poll that 49 percent of people in the UK support legalisation – although opposition is considerable and 38 percent also consider the smell of neighbours growing or using cannabis a nuisance.
Rapper Big Narstie, who is expected to attend this year’s 4/20 Hyde Park rally alongside other popular artists, told the authors of the Hanway Associates report: “Legalisation provides communities who have been ignored and persecuted with a chance to build economic independence. It gives us a chance to have bigger conversations about policing and the protection of young people.”
Outright legalisation feels more inevitable than ever and developments in London are in the spotlight. In 2001, a year-long police scheme in the South London borough of Lambeth saw cannabis smokers assured they would only risk confiscation and a verbal warning if caught with the drug. The pilot scheme was shelved amid backlash.
But from next month, a mayoral policy piloting in three boroughs of the capital intends to prevent police from arresting young people for possession of up to half an ounce (14 grams) – though they would have to attend traffic speeding course-style classes and their cannabis will almost certainly be confiscated. Unlike in 2002, it seems liberalisation of cannabis law enforcement is here to stay.
Now, some 10,000 prescriptions for medical cannabis have been issued privately across the UK since November 2018, according to Fraser, and there are some 15 clinics supplying the growing demand nationwide. A growing number of forces have effectively decriminalised cannabis use – even cultivation in some cases – and police chiefs support a scheme used by 50,000 people to ensure medical users are entitled to carry weed.
At this year’s 4/20 in London – which is once again unauthorised by the Royal Parks due to previous “large-scale illegality and violence” – Fraser will be on a mission to inform people that patients can access a month’s legal supply for up to £300, including consultations which generally take place remotely (though other patients are known to pay much more for specialised oils). If you have conditions that a private doctor accepts are alleviated by cannabis, then you can access it legally, like many doing already.
“We have 27 different strains which come in flowers, oils, capsules and also cartridge vaporisers,” he adds. It all marks a staggering turnaround which has taken shape fairly rapidly over the past five years – and now almost a century after the UK’s 1928 Coca Leaves and Indian Hemp Regulations classified cannabis as a poison.
In another example of how British society is heading back to an era where cannabis was respected – whether through mandates on farmers during the Tudor era to grow hemp for naval materials such as rope, or the enthusiasm of Queen Victoria’s doctor Sir John Russell-Reynolds (who may have prescribed her cannabis oil for menstrual cramps) – Jessica Steinberg will soon become Oxford University’s first PhD on legal cannabis markets.
Steinberg is also the co-founder of entOURage Network, a platform helping women explore opportunities in legal cannabis markets. “The state of cannabis laws today is bound to continue to change,” she said, ahead of addressing the crowds at Hyde Park. “There needs to be a degree of adaptability and flexibility as research is published, market trends emerge and other forms of innovation unfold.”
As the dank aroma at events across the country will indicate on 20th April, smokers may well have outgrown the possibility of prohibition, some think that so many people now grow cannabis in the UK that it’s impossible to stop – something the UK cannabis social clubs founder Greg de Hoedt had urged attendees to contribute to at a string of 4/20 protests. “There are some people growing exceptional stuff, they’re rivalling Barcelona and Amsterdam,” says Elgamal. “We’re going to have a fantastic market over here.”