Getting Stoned in a Park Won't Bring About Cannabis Reform in the UK

We need better forms of protest than getting publicly arrested in Hyde Park for smoking a comedically big joint.

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Apr 20 2015, 2:00pm

Photos by Jake Lewis.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized I had a shitty birthday. It's one of those inconvenient dates, like Christmas or May-Day, where all my friends are off work celebrating something bigger than myself, and my getting-older always seems to go vastly unnoticed. As a result, 4/20 has developed from something I loved to something that irritates me year after year, not because I think I'm entitled to be celebrated more than weed, or because I end up getting high every year without fail, but because if you—like me—think we need serious changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act, blazing a spliff in Hyde Park is a surefire way to guarantee that doesn't ever happen.

Weed is loved in part due to the adulation it receives—not just by the millions of recreational users worldwide, but also from the people whose lives are made easier through the seemingly endless medicinal properties of the many strains now available. The problem I have with 4/20 events is that they are portrayed as a protest, when in actuality they're little more than an excuse to get high. I mean, MDMA has medicinal properties and is used by millions recreationally, but you don't see people hoovering up lines off the steps of Parliament because they think it should be legal. There has to be a better way of winning the War on Drugs than simply taking them in solidarity.

As an act of civil disobedience, gathering to smoke weed doesn't seem to have been thought through all that well in regard to who exactly the organizers are trying to convince. Every year the tabloids pick up on the protest, and 2015 was no different: yesterday the Daily Mail ran an article titled "Police arrest 53 people" above a photo of what they described as "dramatic images" of police restraining a "tracksuit wearing man," and the accompanying photos were no better—there was the requisite guy in camo trousers with waist-length dreadlocks; a man in a fedora and a goatee holding up a homemade "FREE CANNABIS" sign; and some guy taking a selfie while smoking a joint. If a genie granted the MailOnline three images to run with a story about a smoke-in, they couldn't have asked for any more fit-for-task than those.

Images and stories like these do nothing but reinforce negative stereotypes of cannabis users by making them seem innocuous and irreverent, stuck in the purgatory of teenage rebellion and sticking a finger up to the rest of society. And it doesn't help that among all the coke-shotters, dreadlocked white boys, and tie-dye troops you'll find mostly teenagers. And lots of them.

Here's the thing: if weed were to be regulated in any way it would be for over-18s, not minors. If there were a slither of seriousness about the event as a protest, there wouldn't be a child in sight. It's all about public perception: the tabloid press in the UK really don't like weed—or "marijuana cigarettes," or whatever they're calling them this week—and every week they show their five million-plus readers different studies about how smoking weed will make you a paranoid, underachieving addict after your first toke. Question is: why give them more ammo? Nothing says "keep this banned" like a page four splash of a pale, red-eyed 14-year-old in a Guy Fawkes mask gobbing off to the police with a crusty bowl in his hand.

I spoke to Peter Reynolds, president of CLEAR UK, a pressure group who until 2011 partook in the rallies, but have now taken a more politically-targeted, grown up approach. "If you want to change the minds of the people who have got the power, you need to think about their perceptions," he told me, explaining that instead of protesting the government they'd instead try to engage with them: "In the last year, CLEAR has had more meetings with government ministers and senior politicians than the entire campaign in the last 40 years." And it seems to be working: following a brief to Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems have used policy created by CLEAR in their election manifesto.

Related: For more on weed, watch our doc on butane hash oil:

I put the idea of changing perception to Alex Finlay of the London Cannabis Club, one of the groups involved in organizing the Hyde Park event every year, who agrees that we've got to rebrand cannabis. "These rallies aren't as effective as other avenues," he tells me, but he still sees them as an integral part of the whole movement because they show solidarity among users who might not usually be particularly public. He agreed with me that a more diplomatic approach is needed and that the media showing kids with bongs is a problem, which is why there are two events this year—a more visible one in Hyde Park and a picnic today outside Parliament. He believes activists have got to become more like "cannabis marketers" who change how people respond to cannabis to remove the negative stereotype.

Changing the image of the campaign from a bunch of flippant drug users and kids in a park to show that, in actuality, wider society sees the injustice of our archaic drug legislation isn't easy without canceling the events in their entirety. But there needs to be some movement: nearly every poll around the subject shows that more than 50 percent of the UK agrees that we need a change in cannabis legislation, but it's fair to say that not all of them were at Hyde Park yesterday. The likelihood is that the wider, legislation-supporting public don't want to be associated with being pro-drugs for fear of association—something that can only be changed by altering the stereotype to a more positive one, which is seemingly impossible when battling a weed-hating press.

Alex Finlay from the LCC believes that if the events make it to the papers they get people talking, and that "as long as there's a debate, there's a discussion—which is better than radio silence." Debate is good, and there has been more of it than ever off the back of American legalization, but not all press is necessarily good press. It's quite commonly said that 4/20 protests across America were partly responsible for the legalization of cannabis in several states; however, CLEAR believes it's actually despite these events that change happened. Take Colorado's "YES on 64" campaign—it won the support of the people of Colorado and pushed through historic legislation to have cannabis legalized statewide. But they didn't achieve that by sitting around a park getting high—it was through suit-and-tie meetings, media appearances, and political persuasion, connecting with wider society and informing them of the benefits of cannabis as medicine, as a financial resource, as a way of reducing crime and keeping weed out of the hands of teenagers.

The idea of 4/20 being a day of celebration is fine, but as a protest it's futile because the image of stoners won't change if stoners don't change their image and attitude. Most users are normal functioning adults who live fulfilled lives, but you'd never know that if you saw any coverage of Hyde Park. When something doesn't work, it defies rationality to keep doing it over and over again, so we need to try something new: writing to your MP, sharing information of the benefits of reform, and engaging those who have fallen victim to the tautology of the War on Drugs make more sense than tired anti-establishment smoke-ins.

Battles are won with hearts and minds, not bongs and banners. There are people out there who need cannabis as a medicine who should be the priority, and it's selfish to impair them of that right through reinforcing negative stereotypes in the public sphere. If stoners want to be integrated as an accepted, normal part of society, it's illogical to keep segregating themselves with events like 4/20, giving the press ammo and hindering the hard work of groups trying a diplomatic approach. Until then, every 4/20 isn't just an annoying day to have a birthday or a fun day out with your mates, it's an act of political self-flagellation that is stopping the very progress it seeks.

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