Cannabis has a happy home in Bristol. Even the streets seem sort of stoned – brightly painted houses jut above the skyline, hills roll up and off in inconvenient directions and anti-capitalist murals are painted on every corner.
Growing up in the city I have my own distinct memories of sunny days in parks where the smell of lit spliffs was as common as cut grass. I remember school friends telling me their parents were weed-smokers, the kid in my brother's year who told us his mum was growing her own crop and another who claimed his dad was getting him an eighth for Christmas.
I wasn't surprised, then, when last year a government report into "drug misuse" found that more people in the West Country reported smoking cannabis than anywhere else in the UK, with 8.4 percent of the population having used it in the previous year – a whole percentage point above London in second place. If the South West also produced the bulk of the UK's cannabis maybe be this would be logical, but it doesn't. That accolade belongs to the North West and the Midlands. The explanation for the South West's love of weed comes from somewhere else – something more closely tied to the culture of the place itself.
Ahead of 4/20 – and VICE's Weed Week – we took a trip to Bristol, the largest city in the South West, to meet with one of the heads of the Bristol Cannabis Club to talk about the city's relationship with the plant.
Al Burrell, 37, lives in a terraced house in the Easton area of the city. The place is tidy but busy. We're shown around rooms full of Bristol Cannabis Club merchandise, as well as his personal paraphernalia – balms, pipes, blow-torches and a large red rosin press for extracting cannabis oil. We're followed around the house by his unmanageably energetic staffy, Lucky Star, who scampers around in circles before periodically launching himself onto the sofa once we're sitting down.
Al remembers being curious about weed from a young age. Growing up he noticed that cannabis smoke didn't aggravate his asthma, and that his allergies dropped when he was around it. Later in life he found that smoking it alleviated an otherwise crippling social anxiety, transforming him from "the lad who couldn't go to the pub" into someone who was ready to make friends. He tells me it's cannabis that makes him the well-adjusted person he is today.
Al actually missed the first meeting of the Bristol Cannabis Club (BCC), but soon after the second meeting he became a central member of the group's administrative team.
In case you're unfamiliar with the UK Cannabis Social Club model, the BCC – which is a branch of the national organisation – works like a private members club: people who are interested in joining need a referral from someone already inside. The group host events where like-minded individuals can meet, smoke and campaign for regulated legalisation. The Bristol club has around 230 members, all of whom come from a variety of backgrounds. "We're really proud of that," Al tells me. "We've got grandparents and 18-year-olds, we've got unemployed people, minimum wage and people on really high salaries."
WATCH: High Society – Weed, which includes an interview with the president of the UK Cannabis Social Clubs.
Much of the club's work is focused on educating cannabis growers, encouraging people to take the practice more seriously. "People should have health and safety licenses if they are producing for somebody else," Al explains. "It's about being responsible." The group also discourages the use of pesticides and impresses the importance of sending samples of any grow off for testing.
While cannabis is still as illegal in Bristol as it is in the rest of the UK, policing attitudes have recently shifted. Speaking to VICE last year, Avon and Somerset's drug policy strategy manager Paul Bunt revealed that forces had begun operating a diversion technique which moved away from targeting individual users. It's not decriminalisation as such, but cannabis users caught smoking will get away with a caution – the first time they're caught, that is.
Al, who moved from London to Bristol in 2003, recognises this shift in policing, and believes it reflects the city more generally. "I feel quite comfortable out there – this area is tolerant," he explains. He admits that as an older smoker, and a Rastafarian, he feels the police are far less likely to target him, but generally he feels the city's climate is more sympathetic to smokers. "If you're a problem in the community the police will target you, but if you're not – if you're holding down a job and looking after your family – they'll leave you to it, which is how it should be really," he says.
Paul Bunt has recently retired so wasn't available for additional comment for this piece, but speaking to VICE last year he said the intention behind the policy shift was to "deal with low-level drug offences without getting people involved in the criminal justice system".
By all accounts it seems to be working. Avon and Somerset's experiment has been received far better than the similar Lambeth experiment of 2001, which saw the then Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith denounce the strategy as "damaging the young", and was still being condemned as recently as 2013 for having driven up hard drug use in the area. Perhaps the trial was waiting for Bristol – away from the tinderbox social tensions and media concentration of London, in a place where opinions can be far more progressive.
Bristol is a proudly left-leaning place, having voted three out of four constituencies Labour in the last general election and 62 percent in favour of Remain during the EU referendum. Liberal Democrat Kay Barnard, a candidate in the city's upcoming mayoral elections, has even made relaxed attitudes towards cannabis one of her flagship policies.
Bristolians love to publicly celebrate how free-spirited the city is. How "supremely creative" it is. The home of Banksy, Massive Attack, Portishead and an annual hot-air balloon fiesta. This version of the city – Buzzfeed Bristol, you might say – doesn't represent the whole picture: the usual story of inequality and gentrification still applies, and the further from the city centre you travel the more conservative attitudes are likely to get, but by and large the city's dominant character is fiercely open-minded.
After visiting Bristol last week I received a call from Jack, another member of the BCC. He's fairly new to the city, having moved to Bristol from Guildford two years ago after graduating in music production. He tells me he was attracted both by Bristol's creative spirit and its forward-thinking attitudes towards weed. He's similarly confident when it comes to smoking on Bristol's streets. "As long as you're not walking down the street smoking a fat zoot really obviously, as long as you're being respectful, you won't be bothered," he assures me. "I think the police know that cannabis isn't causing problems in Bristol."
After an hour or so at Al's we're joined by one of his friends, who, for reasons which soon become obvious, doesn't want to tell me his name. We leave for his house, about a 20-minute walk away and closer to the city centre. Once we're inside, the nameless friend invites us to look inside a hidden closest in his living room, which reveals a modest but meticulously cultivated crop of four cannabis plants. Bright orange light emanates from the incubated cupboard, and a limited cluster of tubes and pipes feed between the plants and a larger tank. Despite showcasing the height of technological professionalism, there's something admirably DIY about the clandestine set-up.
We make our way into the garden to debrief. The sun catches the corners of the plastic bottles Al's friend has used to protect a further two plants, still in their seedling stage. The outdoor crop is small, but sits in plain view of any neighbours with even a passing interest in what exactly is sprouting from the grow bags. Al's friend doesn't seem worried. They all know he grows cannabis, and none of them care.
This speaks to Bristol's strange relationship with the plant. Weed is not legal; Al is keen to stress that the police haven't always been kind to him and other BCC members. For every story about officers turning a blind eye there's another about confiscated plants. Yet what pervades is the popularity of self-governance, among both the law and consumers. As long as you're not running a full-blown factory – of the sort that have been shut down in Bristol recently – the police seem to accept that cannabis consumers are mostly responsible and rarely cause problems.
The very existence of the BCC is testament to a degree of honesty that is distinctly lacking in conversations about drug use in the rest of the country. As Al sees it, "It's breaking down the stigma; if everyone knows one person who consumes or produces, who is also a functioning member of society, then gradually it becomes accepted."
Normalisation comes before legalisation, and Bristol won the first battle some time ago.
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