by Jake Lenton
So, it’s the morning after the night before. 420. I’ve only just dried out and already an article has popped up in the Daily Mail claiming only a few dozen pro cannabis supporters turned up in the park due to the heavy rain …
I don’t know where their photographer was but a more accurate focus of their article would have been: “Thousands of pro cannabis supporters protest in Hyde Park despite heavy rain”!
This was my first 420 in Hyde Park. I arrived with my friend just after 11am, where there were probably around a hundred people already gathered (so about six people by the Daily Mail standards). There were a couple of police cars circling the park and soon a sweet smell in the air as people began to mingle and share each other’s different strains.
Around half 11, the NORML UK team arrived with their tables and banners and were promptly approached by a seemingly quite friendly police officer who advised them that they couldn’t set up a stand within the park as it is royal land, but they were free to set up on the pavement by the entrance. And so, without any bother, that’s what they did. Although in previous years it had been no problem to be in the park, being just outside by the gates meant they attracted many more passers-by who hadn’t been aware of what was going on. Home goal for the police!
After midday, crowd numbers rapidly increased, and so did the amount of police. Gradually six vans lined up in Speakers’ Corner, with the addition of mounted police and cars circling the park. Clearly today was not a good day to become a real victim of crime in London, as most of the Metropolitan Police were in Hyde Park to deal with us massively dangerous individuals.
The policy seemed to be if the police saw you smoking a joint you would be asked to surrender it and place it in a special bin. Some officers took no further action, while some were seen carrying out searches and arrests. There were a couple of arrests early on which drew a negative reaction from the crowd, but as the crowd continued to grow the police took a much more relaxed standpoint, keeping to the edges and unless you openly walked past them smoking, no action was being taken. Word of the high amount of police quickly spread on social media and, as well as the shoddy weather, may have been a factor in many people staying away.
While undoubtedly the police presence was disproportionate and a massive waste of taxpayers’ money, many people also spoke to officers, some of whom were sympathetic to the cause and some less so. Ultimately, they had been sent out to do their job, and I’m sure many of them on duty yesterday would much rather have been out catching real criminals rather than watching several thousand people get high and make new friends. Equally, there were some police who relished the chance to ruin a few days and succeeded, like the one that I offered a NORML UK leaflet to, but was only interested in who had dared to hang a banner the wrong side of the ‘Queen’s fence’.
Stuart Harper representing NORML UK and Greg de Hoedt representing the UK Cannabis Social Clubs, opened with passionate, well-informed speeches, based on the facts of cannabis use and prohibition. They were universally well received by the crowd, despite some teething issues with the PA system (thanks to the rain and the police not allowing a dry stage in the park this year). They covered the waste of resources on tackling cannabis use, the potential profit for the Government and benefit to the economy, and the new situation in Colorado and Washington where cannabis has been legalised. One interesting thing that I learned was that the US branch of NORML donated roughly £600,000 to the legalisation campaign in those states. NORML UK doesn’t have that kind of spending power over here yet but hopefully this will change as more and more people become aware of the work that is going on for real change.
Early on anyone playing music was forced to turn it off, but the size of the crowds had forced the police to give up this tactic, so Stuart and Greg were followed by a set from KSH and the Going Goods, including some impressive beatboxing.
After the performance, Michelle X of the NORML UK Women’s Alliance gave her story, which showed exactly why medicinal cannabis needs to be made available in the UK (and worldwide) immediately. Michelle recounted that, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and placed on all manner of prescription drugs, she had to use a wheelchair and was told she would be dead by age 35. Eventually, a doctor recommended cannabis to her, and now, speaking without a wheelchair, she looked pretty healthy for a woman who apparently should have been dead some years ago.
We then heard from Caroline Allen, Green Party MEP candidate for London, who outlined her party’s stance on cannabis prohibition. She said the Green Party recognises the waste of resources used to issue roughly 160,000 cannabis warnings a year, and hypocrisy of drug laws when over 8,000 people a year are dying from alcohol related illnesses. The Green Party proposes that cannabis be removed from the Misuse of Drugs Act, decriminalising it and looking at adopting a similar policy to the Dutch Model. Caroline concluded by pointing out this could mean a benefit of £1.25 billion a year to the Government.
Stuart and Greg wrapped up with pointing out the work done behind the scenes by NORML UK and UKCSC to influence Members of Parliament and provide them with real facts of cannabis. Together, they have equipped so many activists with the information and arguments we need to make the case for change to their MPs and other politicians. They also called for everyone to become involved in politics to implement real change, recommending people find out the views of the parties in your area and vote for the candidates with the views you agree with the most.
Then followed a minute’s silence at 4.19pm to remember the tens of thousands of victims of prohibition in the UK and hundreds of thousands worldwide. People who have lost their freedom, or had their lives blighted by criminal records for drug use.
Finally, at 4.20pm there was a huge cheer from the crowd, smoke filled the air and everyone shared a smoke with their new friends. A huge smoke cloud filled Speakers’ Corner, as the police looked on.
420 2014 in Hyde Park was a success – the weather couldn’t have been much worse and still around 7,000 people turned up in the pouring rain, proving we have many, many thousands who are truly dedicated to the cause. I met dozens of like-minded people, and everyone was happily chatting to whoever they had found themselves next to, with many stories and opinions being shared. Yes, we got soaked, but we still made our point and many new friends and important networks were made to help with going forward to other events and protests.
After the early teething problems with the police, the event passed completely peacefully. Much more peacefully than the many beer festivals that are legally held throughout the UK, and the irony is that if we had all been drinking alcohol yesterday I doubt the police would even have turned up. Estimates range from 5,000 – 8,000 people attended. Unless you’re inclined to believe the Daily Mail who claim that a few dozen attended. We had more than that in leaflet distributors alone!
The only real problem on the day was not the weather or the police, but the huge amount of litter left behind. I filled a few bags before having to catch the train, but it was literally a drop in the ocean. Despite the organisers doing their best to encourage people to clean up after themselves, it was widely ignored. NORML UK provided 400 big bags and litter-pickers, and I know a dedicated group of volunteers stayed behind long after everyone else clearing everyone’s mess up, who deserve the utmost respect. But next year, please just take your rubbish to a bin, or at least bag it and leave it where you are for easier clean-up. And see you there!