What Weed Activism Looked Like Before You Were Born

The Museum of Youth Culture now boasts a collection of ephemera related to UK psychedelia and cannabis activism.
28 August 2019, 8:15am
cannabis rally hyde park
All images courtesy of Lee Harris and the Museum of Youth Culture. 

Weed activism in 2019 has two faces. First: the reformists pushing for legalisation via the kind of activism that people with the power to make any kind of change might actually, potentially, maybe one day listen to. Second: your boyfriend, who's campaigning for a "420" emoji and regularly posts Valencia-filtered photos of the fat nugs he keeps in a special jar under his bed.

Fifty years ago, cannabis activism looked a little different. At the forefront of the movement was Lee Harris, who in 2016 ran for London Mayor as part of the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol Party. Recently, Lee donated an archive collection of over 300 photographs, copies of the cannabis magazine he started, Homegrown, and boxes and boxes of posters calling for the legalisation of cannabis and psychedelics to the Museum of Youth Culture.

If the Museum of Youth Culture rings a bell, it might be because we spoke to Jamie Brett from YOUTH CLUB – the not-for-profit behind the museum – earlier this year, when they started taking submissions from the public to add to their archive. They're still taking submissions and are well on their way towards a 2023 grand opening of a permanent museum, according to Jamie, but for now they'll be exhibiting Harris' archive, at a pop-up exhibition in central London this September.

I had a chat with Jamie, head of YOUTH CLUB's creative projects, about the new collection, where drugs activism fits into British youth culture and the Museum of Youth Culture's ever-growing archive.

A poster used at a Hyde Park rally.

VICE: Hi, Jamie. Tell me about these posters – where are most of them from?
Jamie Brett: They're all from the early 1970s and they were all part of this big campaign that went out with a magazine called Homegrown, which was started by Lee Harris. He commissioned artists, who would come from London to his cottage out in the sticks in Suffolk, and they would create these illustrations for him. Every poster made was towards rallying for the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Were any of the posters put up around London?
They were mainly used for placards in protests. The "Legalise Cannabis Now" one was one of the ones he took with him to Hyde Park rallies when there were protests going on [in the 1970s]. The poster-oriented stuff was for protests, and the more ornate illustration type ones were for more editorial purposes.

So he just had all of these posters sitting in his cottage?
Yeah. We asked if he had any photographs and he said no, but then he invited us to look at his archive, so we took the trip to his cottage and went through boxes and boxes of material.

Do any of the posters have interesting stories behind them?
There were some amazing artists that he wanted to work with. They were all quite "bohemian" people and he had to manage that by getting these amazing artists that were just loafing around London and bringing them to his rural home. There's one by an artist called Peter Dawson, who he used to have to pick up from Portobello Road. He would give him a bottle of wine and get him drunk on the drive to his house in rural Suffolk. Peter would draw the illustrations and then Lee would have to drive him back down to London again.

Where does drug activism fit into broader British youth culture?
Well, we're trying to tell the most comprehensive story of youth culture that has ever been told. The history within itself has not been very well or clearly represented by anyone, so this last year we’ve been pulling as many stories as we can around movements that we don’t have a lot on. We reached out to Lee because we knew that he would have some materials around hippies. The hippy movement was the reason that we were drawn to that protest material, but actually it tells a wider history of counterculture, which is naturally a big part of our archive because protests still go on, the archive just adds some context to it.

Is there a reason that you've collated these posters now, when the YOUTH CLUB archive has been going a while?
That's a really good question. Our archive started in 1997 and it's been going on for a long time. It just started off as a photo library, and we had been licensing newspapers and other programmes. It was representing youth culture in a way that was wrong and it wasn't showing the true story. But now we've had a real kick up the arse that we need to take it seriously. If we’re not using material like this, we're doing it a disservice.

Thanks, Jamie.

Exhibiting Lee Harris’ archive is funding reliant, so if you want to help, you can donate to the Museum of Youth Culture here. See more cannabis posters from over the last 50 years – not from Lee's archive – below: