By Deej Sullivan
On Saturday the 18th and Sunday the 19th of May 2013, NORML UK held its inaugural AGM and conference at the Malcolm X Community Centre in Bristol. The event included eminent speakers including Tom Lloyd (ex-Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police), Annie Machon (ex-MI5 agent) and Rowan Bosworth-Davies (ex-Detective Inspector with the Metropolitan Police), among others, and drew cannabis campaigners and supporters of drug law reform from across the British Isles and beyond.
All of this was the culmination of the hard work put in over the last 12 months since NORML UK’s inception, and the great success of the weekend in bringing everyone together and galvanising thoughts and ideas into actions, will hopefully lead to another huge 12 months ahead of us.
The festivities kicked off on Saturday morning with the AGM where members were asked to vote for nominations to the various executive positions within NORML. Thankfully for those of us who had journeyed to Bristol that morning and were perhaps a little bleary-eyed and in need of a strong coffee and a sativa, the formalities were dealt with swiftly and in typical toker fashion. All incumbents were reelected, although there were a few new positions added and voted on and one or two names of positions were changed. Details of those will be released separately.
After the AGM, the first of many breaks was announced and most people moved outside where some gazebos had been erected. The atmosphere was extremely friendly and chilled out as everyone got to know the many new faces that had come along, and caught up with old friends from within the movement. The loudest voice amongst all of this was of course Des Humphrey, who ensured that everybody he saw was given a welcome befitting an event such as this.
Once everyone was thoroughly refreshed, the conference was officially opened and everyone given a warm welcome by Amirah Cole from The Malcolm X Community Centre, Chris Bovey, Jo Moss and Greg de Hoedt from NORML UK. It was then time to welcome the first guest speaker – Tom Lloyd. Tom is an ex-Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire police and has written and spoken at length on the issue of prohibition and why he believes it is a costly, extremely dangerous and harmful waste of time, money and resources. His speech went on for a little longer than the allotted 45 minutes but no one seemed to mind, such was the passion with which he spoke. The crowd lapped it up and the resulting applause was probably the biggest ever given by a bunch of weed smokers to a chief constable.
Following Tom Lloyd (and lunch, which was delicious) was never going to be easy. That task fell to Mat Southwell, an ‘International Drug User Activist & Drug Specialist’, who has spent much of his adult life campaigning for the rights of “hard” drug users. I think it’s safe to say he succeeded, in a big way. The similarities between his goals and those of NORML are obvious, and he was at pains to ensure that we heed the lessons he and his colleagues have learnt. Again, the audience was exceptionally attentive and were clearly impressed by Mat’s energy, enthusiasm and most of all his bravery in standing up to the big shots at the UN and being open about his drug use.
Next up was Ayesha Mian, President of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. SSDP are an organisation of students working within communities trying to educate young people, with the aim of enabling them to make informed decisions about drug use based on evidence rather than the propaganda fed to them by the media. Her speech focused on the effects of cannabis on young people and on how best to make sure, as a movement, that we do everything we can to protect young people from the potential dangers of cannabis use.
The final speaker of the day was Annie Machon, ex-MI5 intelligence officer and current director of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) Europe. Drawing on her varied experiences in her career, Annie eloquently spoke about the failure of prohibition and the war on drugs.
Later on Saturday evening came the possibly more exciting prospect (to some anyway) of live music followed by a performance from none other than Mr Nice himself – Howard Marks. The music came in the form of KSH and the Going Goods; a five-piece hip-hop group from the west of England whose blend of acoustic rap and beat-boxing mirrored the laid-back vibe of the conference perfectly and went down a storm.
The main event of the evening was of course Howard Marks. By the time he took to the stage not one person in the building was giving their attention to anything other than him; such is the level of respect he commands within the cannabis community. Despite some minor technical glitches, Howard gave a predictably brilliant performance; regaling the audience with excerpts from his sell out stage show, including the story of his first meeting with the infamous IRA arms dealer James McCann, who helped Howard smuggle Hashish from Kabul, Afghanistan to Shannon, Ireland. One got the impression that many had heard these stories before, either from reading Howard’s autobiography Mr Nice, or watching the film of the same name. However it was clear that nothing quite compared to hearing the words from his own mouth, and when he was finished he received possibly the most rapturous applause of the weekend from a crowd who were clearly going to be going home happy.
The following day, the conference was opened by one of Britain’s longest-standing cannabis activists, Free Rob Cannabis, who runs the Hemp in Avalon store in Glastonbury and has been well known on the cannabis activism scene since for around 20 years. Free, who changed his name by deed poll to “Free Rob Cannabis” gave an enlightening talk about the many uses of the hemp plant and his view that this is the most beneficial plant given to us on the planet. Free finished his talk with a poem about the hemp plant, which he apparently wrote on the bus on the way to the conference.
After Free was perhaps the most moving speaker of the conference, Rowan Bosworth-Davies, a former Detective Inspector in the fraud squad of the Metropolitan Police. Like Tom Lloyd, Rowan said he didn’t personally use drugs, however drawing on his experience as a law enforcement officer, he spoke passionately about how counterproductive prohibition is and how it is a costly waste of money that allows criminals to get very rich by exploiting an unregulated black market that in his view would be better served if it was taken out of the hands of the gangsters and controlled by governments. Rowan said he was interested in harm reduction and putting the criminals out of business. He also said it was disgraceful that nobody had been arrested at HSBC for laundering millions of pounds of drug money, even though this is absolutely illegal under British law. He found it obscene that the boss of HSBC didn’t get his door kicked down and unceremoniously taken to the police cells, yet at the same time, ill patients risk this on a daily basis for simply growing their own medicine.
Both Tom Lloyd and Rowan Bosworth-Davies spoke of the need to break down stereotypes. They said just as it is wrong to view all pot smokers as lazy unmotivated long haired scroungers who just want to get high, it is equally wrong to see all police officers as fascist bastards. They spoke of the many good people in the police service who are doing a job they are paid to do to the best of their abilities, many of whom would also agree prohibition doesn’t work.
Delicious Caribbean food was again served up to delegates, courtesy of the Malcolm X Centre, before the final afternoon session, which started with a very interesting presentation from Gary Sutton, head of the Release Drugs Team. Gary’s presentation focussed on the laws surrounding cannabis and the difficulties he faces as an expert witness in court cases, often due to police negligence and/or incompetence. Many of his frustrations at police procedure were echoed by members of the audience, and his speech quickly became more of an open forum. The main point to come from this seemed to be that we need to understand our aims more fully from the other side if we are to make progress. By working within sentencing guidelines and using what we know about police procedure to our advantage, as well as holding police to account when procedure is not followed correctly, it should be possible to at least make our lives a little easier if and when we are caught in breach of the law.
The conference ended with a speech from Greg de Hoedt, NORML UK’s Outreach Director and founder of the UK Cannabis Social Clubs. Greg is himself a medicinal user, who medicates with cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of Crohn’s Disease. Greg gave a brief overview of how he came to be involved in the cannabis movement in the UK; from discovering that cannabis relieved the symptoms of his disease, to his travels to the USA where he worked within the legal medical marijuana industry and saw first hand the great positive consequences that regulation can bring, as well as the negatives that can come from not having enough regulation. Finally, Greg spoke about the cannabis social club movement in Europe and his desire to see the same kind of mass disobedience in the UK; nothing will change until we stop talking and start taking action to take back our medicine or recreational drug of choice from the criminals who control it now, and force the Government to accept that we are not the problem, but the solution.
Overall, the event was considered a resounding success. NORML UK spokesman, Des Humphrey said, “It was so good to see so many friends and like-minded people gather for a cause we all so passionately believe in. The calibre of the speakers was second to none and I would like to thank them for making it such an informative and memorable event. I would also like to thank the young lads who brought along so much equipment to film the entire conference and I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the footage.
“The first ever NORML conference in Europe has really put NORML UK on the map and we look forward to organising many more such about events, to help bring about real positive change in the UK on the cannabis issue,” said Mr Humphrey.