Tag Archives: cannabis

UK Cannabis Activism

In 2001 David Blunkett announced that cannabis would be downgraded from Class B to Class C of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. From 2001 to 2004 I attended the annual Cannabis Festival in Brockwell Park, organised by the Brixton Cannabis Coalition. It was a very popular event and the police turned a blind eye to mass public consumption of the herb. During this time people also started exploiting a loophole which allowed the sale of fresh psilocybin containing mushrooms even though psilocybin itself was classified as a Class A drug. These were high times indeed. The downgrading of cannabis to Class C did not actually occur until January 2004 but things generally seemed to be moving in the right direction.

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Love no have no Government

The title of this post is taken from the words of “Time Conquer”, a track on the album “Time Boom X De Devil Dead” by Lee Scratch Perry and Dub Syndicate. When the album was first released in 1987 I was living in the United States doing post graduate research at Dartmouth Collage in Hanover New Hampshire. Before leaving England in 1985 my primary musical influence had been the legendary John Peel whose show on BBC Radio 1 I listened to religiously. Peel did play some reggae and I didn’t dislike it but I was more into bands like The Cocteau Twins and The Fall.

Arriving in Hanover I found the locals to be generally very welcoming but in some ways I had more in common with other international students and in 1988 I moved into a shared house at 19 Maple Street with people from counties like Guyana, India and Pakistan. Remember this was during the Apartheid era and Dartmouth Collage had significant investments in South Africa, something which the Dartmouth Community for Divestment (DCD) were trying to change. There were a few South African students who regularly visited 19 Maple and their personal experience of Apartheid made them key figures in the campaign. They often turned up in the evening and “held court” in our living room. I don’t remember contributing a great deal to the discussions but I listened attentively and I guess that is the time I really started developing a serious political consciousness, aided in large part I think by two things – cannabis and reggae.

I had somehow managed to reach my twenties without ever coming across cannabis. One day while visiting a friend in nearby Thetford he told me he had grown some in his back yard and asked if I wanted to try it. I had never even smoked a cigarette before so I was a bit hesitant but after watching him load a pipe with pure weed and take a toke I just followed suit and waited for something to happen. The effect came on quickly and was like nothing I had ever experienced – consciousness expanding is probably the best way to describe it. The world was never really quite the same again.

Something that people who have tried cannabis generally agree on is that it enhances the experience of listening to music. The herb is used as a sacrament in the Rastafari movement so it was perhaps inevitable that reggae featured heavily in the soundtrack to life at 19 Maple Street. It was great to listen to while stoned but it was also both spiritual and political. There was Bob Marley of course. I particularly remember the album “Rastaman Vibration” with tracks like “Crazy Baldhead”, “Rat Race”, and “War” (featuring lyrics derived from the words of a speech by Haile Selassie to the United Nations). After returning to England I started learning to play reggae by jamming with friends and I found that what drives it is the rhythm section, consisting of drum kit and electric bass guitar. In the case of Bob Marley’s band it was Carlton Barrett on drums and his brother Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass who were essential to the music that made Bob an international superstar. The Barrett Brothers also played with Lee “Scratch” Perry but on the album “Time Boom X De Devil Dead” it was Lincoln “Style” Scott on drums and Errol “Flabba” Holt (gotta love those names) on bass. Time Boom was a particular favourite at 19 Maple and I still love it – Perry inhabits that intersection of madness and pure genius. The album opens with a track called “S.D.I.”, referring to the U.S. Strategic Defence Initiative (aka Star Wars). Other tracks include “Allergic to Lies” and the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “Time Conquer”, which includes the lyrics “Cursed are all liars and blessed are the people who speak the truth”. Perry made a lot of music before Time Boom, and has made a lot more since – I recently discovered his 2004 album Panic in Babylon with great tracks like “Voodoo” and “I Am a Psychiatrist”.

Learning about what was happening in South Africa was just the start – the Apartheid government did not have a monopoly on oppression! I remember meeting the Deputy Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour when he came to Dartmouth at the invitation of the International Students Association and gave an enlightening talk about the history of Palestine. Then there was the situation in Central America (the Iran-Contra affair had come to light in November 1986) as well as domestic issues relating to the treatment of African and Native Americans. On the Dartmouth campus itself there were problems with racism, sexism and homophobia, particularly within some of the Fraternities. I was undergoing a process of radicalisation during which I had to question many of my own views. In one case I remember a long discussion with a friend about abortion. I hadn’t really thought about it much before but if anything I guess I had previously been “pro-life” (that is certainly the position I was arguing). After several hours I understood the errors in my previous thinking and I have been staunchly “pro-choice” ever since (and the friend who convinced me was male and from Pakistan).

So some reggae was politically contentious, like the track “Abortion” from the 1983 album “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by Black Uhuru. To the extent that Rastafari is an Abrahamic religion grounded in the Old Testament it shares certain sexist and homophobic tendencies with the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), tendencies that are undoubtedly revealed in some reggae music. These problems were of course discussed (and to a limited extent excused on the basis of cultural differences) but they couldn’t negate the positive messages in what we listened to.

Another 19 Maple favourite was Forces of Victory by Linton Kwesi Johnson from 1979, and again it was music that had a lasting influence on me. Later I discovered his other early albums, “Dread Beat an’ Blood from 1978 and “Bass Culture” from 1980. I returned to England in 1990 and a year later he released “Tings An’ Times” which features some fantastic guest solos on flute, violin, accordion etc. The amazing thing is that Linton is probably more famous as a poet than as a musician, having become only the second living poet (after Alan Ginsburg) to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

Hanover is situated on the Connecticut River and crossing the bridge takes you into Norwich Vermont. Of course things looked pretty similar on the other side but it felt very different. The state of New Hampshire (Live Free or Die) seemed more business oriented whereas Vermont (Green Mountain State) was possibly unique at the time in having a Socialist mayor (Bernie Sanders, Mayor of Burlington from 1981 to 1989). We even referred to it as The People’s Republic of Vermont. Burlington also hosted the Vermont Reggae Festival, a free annual event that began in 1986. I don’t think I was at the first one but I did go at least twice and possibly three times. Unlike just about every outdoor festival I have been to since then it only had one stage so there were no clashing sound systems. It also had the massive speaker stacks required for a proper outdoor reggae amplification – even when I went for a swim out in Lake Champlain I could still feel the bass.

Eventually it became clear that I was not going to finish my PhD in plasma physics so I said goodbye to New Hampshire and returned to England. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next so I got in touch with one of the Dartmouth radicals who had graduated and moved to London maybe a year earlier. He was working for an organisation called the Newham Monitoring Project which I got involved with on an occasional basis, but he also put me on to a group called the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign. The TSDC had only recently formed with the purpose of supporting all those arrested at the Poll Tax Riot and helping to coordinate their legal defence. It was run by and for defendants but there was a huge amount of work to do and any help was greatly appreciated – I remember sending out newsletters to supporters, logging video footage, attending court appearances etc. That was my introduction to the London anarchist scene and I still see some of the people I met back then at the annual London Anarchist Bookfair.

I have rambled on long enough but I just want to complete the circle. A few years ago I was flicking through a zine and came across a top ten list of albums chosen by anarchists. It probably featured Crass and Chumbawamba but I was pleased to see that it also included “Time Boom X De Devil Dead” – as Perry said, love no have no government.

420 London Report

Pro-cannabis messages at Speaker's Corner

I was busy this morning so it was nearly 4pm by the time I got to Hyde Park where a large crowd was gathered near Speaker’s Corner for 420 London 2012. I heard reggae and followed my ears to find “The Bigger Society Soundsystem” which had been brought by the same guy who took a larger version of it along last year. There had been some heavy showers and there were a lot of cold wet people standing around, which made the turnout all the more impressive. Just as I was about to load a pipe the rain came down again but luckily I had thought to pack a tarp to shelter under and the shower was over by the time the big blaze up happened at twenty past four. I wandered round in a bit of a daze for another hour or so before the sky darkened again at which point I packed up and cycled back to Kings Cross, trying to stay ahead of the rain. Since I wasn’t there for long I don’t have much to report but I thought it was worth blogging. Hopefully the weather will be kinder next year.

A good turnout despite the rain

420 Boost for my Blog

Less than two thirds of the way through April and this is already the busiest month ever for my blog with 322 views so far. Most of those views are a result of people searching for some combination of the terms 420, London and Hyde Park, and finding my report of last year’s April 20th cannabis celebration. Presumably they are looking for information about this year’s event which will be happening again in Hyde Park on Friday starting at noon. The weather forecast is not looking great but that won’t stop me going – though I am not planning to take a sound system like I did last year. If you are on Facebook you can find out more on the event page. Hope to see you there.

HM Government e-petitions

The mySociety No 10 Petitions website ran from 2006 to 2010, and was perhaps the largest non-partisan democracy site by volume of users ever, with over 8m signatures from over 5m unique email addresses. According to my own records I signed 31 petitions on the site but since there was no system of user accounts it was not possible to view a list of petitions you had signed (I wrote to them in January 2010 about this but never received a response).

After the last general election when New Labour finally got the boot, the ConDem coalition suspended the No 10 petition site and announced that they were working on a replacement which has recently gone live under the name HM Government e-petitions. The headline feature of the new system is that any petition receiving more than 100,000 signature will be “eligible for debate in the House of Commons”.

Earlier today I came across a link to a petition on the new site asking to Allow the prescription of medicinal cannabis by doctors. This is something that I strongly support and the petition was well written by Peter Reynolds of CLEAR who I met in April at 420 London. I had no hesitation in signing up.

The first thing I noticed is that like the old system there is no way to create an account. Each time you sign a petition you have to enter your name and email address, confirm you are a UK citizen or resident, give your postal address, solve a CAPTCHA (provided by reCAPTCHA), tick a box if you want to receive email about the petition, tick a box to accept the terms and conditions and then click to sign – you then receive an email with a link to click in order to confirm your signature. There is no list of signatures available to view and if you can’t remember whether or not you have signed a particular petition there does not appear to be any way to find out (which is why I keep my own record of all petitions I sign). I am not the only one who is disappointed by the lack of accounts and Paul Smith created a petition to Have ‘accounts’ on epetition site which I also signed.

The terms and conditions state that petitions will be accepted and published providing they call on the government for a specific action, do not substantially duplicate an existing open e-petition, and meet further criteria below. There is clearly a problem with the system because (for example) there are many different petitions all calling for the return of capital punishment. The biggest one (Restore Capital Punishment, 15,319 signatures) was created by Paul Staines (the right-wing blogger also known as Guido Fawkes). Reassuringly there is an even bigger Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment which has 22,594 signatures including mine.

Looking through the list of petitions I decided to sign three more before calling it a day: Stop the Badger Cull, Legalise cannabis and UN Membership for and UK recognition of Palestine.

London 420 in Hyde Park

Back in February I was at the annual Reclaim Love pavement party in Piccadilly Circus when a guy gave me a flyer for a Central London 420 event. As usual I was running the Pedals soundsystem and he was keen for me to take it along, which I resolved to do. Now some of you may be asking what a 420 event is, so I will tell you. It is is a counterculture holiday where people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis, and it is observed on April 20th (4/20 in US date notation). I leave you to investigate the significance of the number 420. A Facebook event was set up and eventually a location was announced – I don’t suppose many people were surprised that it was to be in Hyde Park near Speakers’ Corner.

I got up early on the 20th and took the train to Kings Cross, cycled to Camberwell, picked up Pedals (a bike trailer mounted 12 volt soundsystem) and towed it to Hyde Park. I arrived about noon and there was no obvious gathering so I parked up under the trees to chill out with some music on at low volume (partly to check that the journey hadn’t shaken anything loose). After a while I looked up and saw a group of about fifty people sitting further into the park so I went over and offered Pedals to take over from a much smaller system. I played a couple of tracks myself then handed over to a dude in a rasta hat who had a great collection of appropriate reggae, perfect for firing up a bud bomb packed with quality weed.

The high point of the event was at 4.20 pm, by which time there were something like a thousand people present. Having made the necessary preparations everyone exhaled in unison, creating a general haze of smoke. After some more music I set up a microphone for three short speeches. One was by Levent Akbulut, representing Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK (see his own blog entry), while someone else spoke about the wider benefits of the cannabis plant as a sustainable source of food, fuel and fibre. The other speech was by Peter Reynolds, leader of the recently registered Cannabis Law Reform Party CLEAR UK which is the new incarnation of the old Legalise Cannabis Alliance. Peter praised the 420 event but made it clear that he thinks a change in the law will only come through working within the system. He is passionate about ending the prohibition of cannabis altogether but is particularly concerned with making medicinal cannabis available to UK citizens – did you know that Dutch citizens can bring their prescribed cannabis into the UK and use it here legally? He encouraged people to join CLEAR but although I support its aims I have never been a member of any political party and I currently have no intention of becoming one. I would consider voting for a CLEAR candidate in an election though, particularly if we upgrade to AV in the forthcoming referendum.

After the speeches there was more music but then things took an ugly turn. A load of people crashed the party and although many of them were enjoying a dance a significant minority were looking for trouble. I think some of them started robbing people and fighting amongst themselves. The police (who had until then been conspicuous by their absence) showed up in force and since I had to get Pedals back to Camberwell anyway I took that as my cue to leave. More police vans were arriving as I cycled out at Hyde Park Corner but none of that could take away from what had been an excellent day, with perfect weather and the highest turnout for a number of years apparently.

Pot Plant Street Value

Today I read yet another news item about police raiding a cannabis factory where they seized x number of cannabis plants with an estimated street value of y. I have no idea how they decide the “street value” of a cannabis plant so I thought I should investigate. I did a Google search for police “cannabis plants” “street value” and went through the first 100 of about 11,400 results. I was looking for reports of cannabis factory raids in the UK where the police gave both the number of plants seized and the estimated street value, but I also included some cases where police gave total figures over a certain time period or for a particular operation. Unsurprisingly all the reports were of indoor growing, usually in rented houses. Sometimes the wording was in the form “more than 1,000 plants” – I discounted these reports for not giving a specific figure but that still left me with 47 data points. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so before you get bored here is a chart I made:

Cannabis Factory Busts

As you can see, the most commonly used figure seems to be around £300 per plant. The smallest reported seizure was of 20 plants at a house in Lincoln in August 2007 “with some up to seven feet tall”. Unusually there was an estimate of the quantity of cannabis which they would have produced (about 2.8kg) as well as the so called “street value” which was given as £7,000, or £350 per plant. Towards the other end of the scale, in February 2009 police in Halesowen raided two properties in Claremont Street, finding an estimated 1,350 plants which they valued at about half a million pounds, or £370 per plant. Despite the difference in scale between these raids the claimed value per plant was very similar, but that was not always the case.

In April 2008 the Macclesfield Express reported that police had discovered what was believed to be one of Britain’s largest ever cannabis factories, housing 8,000 plants worth about £500,000 – a bargain at only £62.50 per plant. On the other hand, an article in a glossy magazine called PROPERTYdrum listed a number of raids including one in Telford in June 2010 in which £200,000 worth of cannabis plants were discovered – with a haul of only 200 plants they were apparently worth a whopping £1,000 each. Finally, there was a very recent report on the website of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary which mentioned Operation Viscount, targeting cannabis factories across Avon and Somerset. During this three month operation they claim to have seized 7,100 cannabis plants with an approximate street value of £6.6 million, a hefty £930 per plant.

In reality this is complete nonsense. Young plants are almost worthless because the only people who would be interested are growers, and they get them essentially for free by taking cuttings from a mother plant. Even a mature plant is not going to be worth much unless it is ready to harvest and the grower would not obtain “street value” for the crop because it would be sold wholesale to a distributor. Furthermore, a lot of growers are presumably using the “sea of green” method which packs a large number of plants into a small space at the expense of a low yield per plant. In reality I would be surprised if seized plants were worth more than £30 on average.