Today is the 20th of April, AKA 4/20, AKA the one day of every year that stoners can celebrate their love of weed by smoking just as much of it as they normally do. It's also the most important date in the calendar of cannabis activism, with rallies and marches taking place worldwide in favour of the decriminalisation of marijuana.
However, because today is a Monday – and because people tend to have to go to work on Mondays – the big British meet-up took place yesterday in Hyde Park, with thousands gathering on Speakers' Corner to protest against the illegality of cannabis. I went along to gauge opinion from full-time campaigners and part-time placard holders about how the fight for legalisation is going.
I took the train up with the Brighton Cannabis Club, one of the largest and most active organisations of its kind in the UK, with 38 paid up members and many more involved informally. The group, which launched officially in January of 2014, offers a number of benefits to its members, including access to secret toke-friendly venues around the city and discounts on all kinds of marijuana merchandise.
The chairman of the Brighton branch is Rob Davidson, who looks exactly how you'd imagine the chairman of a cannabis club to look: long blonde hair, beard, kind eyes; a bit Messiah-y, basically, if Jesus was more into dabs than dying for our sins.
"We want to establish the club as its own brand in the city, building a network of tokers and working with local head shops to unify and develop the community," he said as we passed through East Croydon. "It's about normalising cannabis in the city and, importantly, educating the public, who are often misinformed."
There was a strong police presence at the Marble Arch entrance to the park, with sniffer dogs employed to monitor passersby. This might seem like a huge waste of time, but the good news is that the cops who could have been off doing worthwhile police work managed to make 53 arrests for possession. So that's 53 dangerous people very temporarily off our streets who would otherwise be smoking a substance that affects no one but themselves.
Confusingly, those who'd already gathered in the park and were openly ripping bongs were mostly left alone, allowing them to all pitch into the visible haze rising above their heads.
I sat down with two other Brighton Cannabis Club members, who told me that weed had changed their lives. Edison suffers with Fibromyalgia – a condition that causes chronic pain all over the body – and until recently was dependent on Tramadol, a strong opiate painkiller. Going against his doctor's advice he has now completely replaced his use of the highly physically addictive opiates with daily dabs of cannabis oil.
Lee, whose right side has been left partially paralysed from childhood meningitis, said cannabis has significantly improved his quality of life. "When I smoke it eases my joint pain, helps my mobility, improves my mood and even helps me see, hear and speak better," he said.
The United Patients Alliance (UPA) were one of several organisations at the Hyde Park rally. The group, which was set up by an MS sufferer in July of 2014, exists to advance legal access to cannabis for patients with chronic conditions. Cannabis is currently listed under Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, meaning it's viewed by the law as having no medicinal benefit whatsoever, making medical research near impossible.
UPA would like to see the law changed so that doctors could recommend the drug to patients, who would also be allowed to legally grow small amounts at home for medicinal purposes.
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The UK – especially England – is far behind other countries when it comes to recognising cannabis as a medicine. Marinol, a synthetic version of THC, has been available to buy in the US since the 1970s, and almost half of all States have legalised cannabis for medicinal purposes. In the UK, an oral THC spray called Sativex is available to Welsh sufferers of MS to help cope with painful muscle spasms.
The problem is that British drug policy in recent years has remained staunchly conservative, with neither Labour nor the Tories willing to give any ground, despite substantiated arguments for reform.
NORML UK had perhaps the biggest presence of any organisation at the Hyde Park rally. The group has been successfully lobbying for cannabis law reform in the US since 2011, with the UK wing operating since 2013. I spoke to Stuart Harper, the organisation's Political Liaison Officer, who said he was optimistic about what could be achieved in the next parliament.
"I think we'll have a left-wing coalition in government from May, which will make it easier to pass reform laws, because drugs would be a fairly easy concession to make to please the more progressive parties," he told me. "It's also easier in a coalition because the responsibility is shared, which makes it easier for parties to justify policies that stray from the official party line."
It's true that, with an election coming up, we're presented with a rare opportunity for a political shakeup. But what exactly is being promised in the main parties' manifestos?
Unsurprisingly, the outlook is pretty gloomy on the Labour and Tory front, who both remain robotically regressive when it comes to drug laws. Labour say that they'll ban all "legal highs" – a tactic that historically hasn't achieved anything – and the Tories go one step further, saying they'll "create a blanket ban on all new psychoactive substances".
The Lib Dems and Greens, who have both consulted NORML UK on cannabis law, take a different approach. The Lib Dem manifesto says that the party will "establish a review to assess the effectiveness of the cannabis legalisation experiments in the United States and Uruguay in relation to public health and criminal activity".
Former Lib Dem Home Office Minister Norman Baker told me: "For too long, politicians have been too scared to challenge the status quo and back radical reform of our drug laws. Even after a government report was published showing there are far more effective ways to tackle drug addiction, both the Tories and Labour continue to ignore the evidence and back the same old failed policies.
"Liberal Democrats want to scrap prison sentences for possession of drugs for personal use so we can give addicts the help they need to recover and focus on the criminal gangs who traffic drugs. All around the world, countries are waking up to the fact that the war on drugs has been an abject failure. We cannot afford to be left behind."
The Green Party manifesto says that they will "adopt an evidence-based approach to the step-by-step regulation, starting with cannabis, of the drugs currently banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act as well as 'legal highs'". Locally, discussions have taken place within the Brighton and Hove Green party on whether cannabis could be legalised in Brighton, with tax proceeds going towards funding the council.
There's also a single-issue party standing 32 candidates across the UK. Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA) hope to convene a Royal Commission to review the UK's drug laws, which will work across all political parties to create an evidence-based approach for reform.
Despite these parties' promises, it remains incredibly difficult to get the issue discussed seriously in parliament. The Green Party's Caroline Lucas made inroads last year when her e-petition calling for MPs to support an impact assessment and cost benefit analysis of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act gained 130,000 signatories. The issue was debated in parliament in October of 2014, but a mere 21 MPs out of a possible 650 bothered to show up. A motion was passed for the analysis to take place, however this was merely symbolic and the next government is not obliged to actually carry it out. Odd, when you consider that over half of all Brits are in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis – a drug reportedly less harmful than aspirin, nicotine or alcohol – which in itself could make the UK billions of pounds per year.
Both the Prime Minister and the Home Office categorically ruled the calls for decriminalisation as "reckless", despite plenty of testimony suggesting it would be anything but. In case you need any evidence of how blinkered the UK's current leaders are, in response to a recent government report that concluded our drug laws make absolutely no difference to the extent of drug usage, a Home Office spokesperson said: "Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK."
I asked Edouard-Henri Desforge, the CISTA candidate for The Cities of London and Westminster, why he thinks successive UK governments have been so opposed to drug policy reform. He said: "It's definitely low on the agenda for mainstream political parties. Some people posit that government never wants to appear soft on crime as they do not wish to appear weak in the eyes of criminals. But we argue that drug possession shouldn't be a Department of Justice matter at all, but rather one for the Department of Health."
Regardless of your stance on the illegality of drugs, with so much proof that cannabis helps improve the lives of those with painful long-term conditions, it's a poor reflection of our democracy that we've never adopted an evidence-based approach to reforming the law.
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