The UK's perception of cannabis is changing. The recent cases of Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell – two children whose severe epilepsy can be treated with cannabis-based medicines – have helped to change public perception of the drug, and increasingly its use is becoming more socially acceptable; a recent YouGov survey found that 75 percent of Brits support legalising medical cannabis, while 43 percent support the legalisation of recreational use – a marked difference to ten years ago, when only 11 percent of the British public believed it should be legal.
Still, the laws surrounding cannabis the UK are now lagging behind those of many other countries, and not everyone – notably, the government – is onboard with this new mentality.
Four years ago, a small group of cannabis activists from the Brighton Cannabis Club got together in Brighton's Preston Park, hoping to change any remaining negative perceptions of weed. Over the years, the gathering of less than 50 dedicated enthusiasts has turned into a much larger affair, now called Green Pride. Last year, around 3,000 people showed up, and this year the figure rose to around 4,000. Accompanying the "protestival" – as organisers have dubbed it – is a pop-up shop and vape lounge, which is open until the end of summer, welcoming anyone who wants to find out more about the cannabis activism scene.
At the event, where queues for the toilets were long and people sweated in the blazing hot sun as music blared out of a sound-system, I had a chat with Aggs, one of the founding members of the Brighton Cannabis Club. "People are sick of hiding their cannabis use, regardless of whether it's recreational or medical," he said. "Brighton is the perfect place to stage this protest for the UK, and we attract people coming from as far as Scotland."
Some were there for a smoke in the sun, while others were calling for the same rights as medical cannabis users in Canada, Australia, certain US states and a number of other locations.
"I use cannabis concentrates for epilepsy; I produce my own oil formula that I've tweaked over the years to help me get back to normal brain function directly after a seizure," said Mark Lucas, a disability activist. "We're here to show that cannabis changes our lives dramatically and we don't want to be criminalised for it."
A couple of police officers were on the scene, anxiously filming everything happening around us.
"The council wants to know what's going on here," said one when I asked what they were up to. "The event is clearly getting bigger and they need to assess how to move forward. We've been assigned to film to find out what is going on, what stalls are selling, what people are doing, so that we can report back to the council and decisions can be made."
Overall, the police presence wasn't hostile; some officers told me they found the event a pleasant and peaceful place to work. However, there were a few who'd clearly decided to try fighting a battle they would never win, randomly selecting people and telling them to put out their spliffs – or, in some cases, taking them away to a van for closer inspection.
Mind you, the officers who wanted to end the party weren't doing the best job: while they searched a young woman in front of an ice cream stall, ultimately finding a baggie containing leftover stems, the stall itself was selling cannabis concoctions to its customers.
"I won a cannabis cup for 'most innovative product' for my ice cream; the award was presented by Lee Scratch Perry!" the owner told me. "This version of the ice cream here is a vegan, dairy-free sorbet; each scoop contains 25 milligrams of CBD. But we also have a strawberry drizzle sauce to go on it, which contains 50 milligrams of THC, for people who want that."
When I asked him if he was worried about police or being quoted he didn't seem fussed: "I'm not worried; the main thing I would say to every cannabis consumer is be an expert on every law you break."
A lot of the stalls were selling legal cannabis extracts that only contained CBD, a compound in weed that is completely legal in the UK. Some were even selling cannabis in its flower form; however, it wasn't the type that gets you stoned. The low THC and high CBD "hemp" sits in a grey area of the law, and there were clearly some businesses and activists who were willing to test that (although they weren't keen to speak to me about it extensively or have their photos taken).
Not all of the stalls were selling products you ingest; there were also a load of vegan food vendors, online head shops, health supplement companies and clothing brands selling their stock.
"We're here to represent the hemp textiles and clothing industry," said Gav Lawson, owner of the THTC clothing brand. "We want to show that cannabis is not just about getting high, or even about medical aspects such as CBD; it's about the bigger picture of hemp in all its forms and uses, including using the plant for manufacturing sustainable products. You can grow the hemp needed for a T-shirt with less than 10 percent of the water needed for a cotton one – and hemp production involves no pesticides; it's just overall a lot more environmentally friendly."
While it's unlikely any of the arguments made at Green Pride are going to reach the upper echelons of government, affect policy or change many minds outside of the existing cannabis community, it doesn't really matter. So many of the attendees told me they don't believe the law should dictate what they're able to do with their own bodies, and – ultimately – that's what the day was about: people asserting their rights as individuals, whether it was the right were to get stoned for fun, or the right to access a medicine that can vastly improve their quality of life.