I arrived at yesterday’s cannabis rally in Hyde Park immediately after church, camera in hand, my tweed jacket rapidly absorbing both rain and gawking stares. I approached the park entrance with a crowd of cannabis enthusiasts. A small group pushing in the opposite direction pestered fellow participants for the location of the nearest McDonalds. Awkwardly filing past a cordon of police officers, most arriving attendees quickly moved toward the safety offered by an enormous crowd of tightly packed, umbrella wielding smokers. A giant, illuminated sign sat in the middle of the entrance, scrolling between messages reading “possession of cannabis is illegal”, and “extra police on patrol in Hyde Park” failed to stop revelers from lighting up directly behind the message board.
The umbrella thicket created in interesting legal gradient. In the center of the crowd, smokers could roll joints and pass cannabis around without any fear of legal action. However, as one neared the edges, or left the shelter of the umbrellas altogether, the chances of arrest or citation increased dramatically. I saw several smokers stopped by the police, who confiscated their cannabis before either immediately releasing them, or releasing them with a written warning. The only actual arrests apparently occurred before my arrival, and involved underage smokers, not eligible for the written warning program.
When speaking with the police, I was told that their goals for the day were to “prevent and detect crime, and keep the peace”. Effectually, the police were certainly detecting a lot of crime, but doing little about it. The fact that public order was nonetheless maintained splendidly does little to further the case for marijuana prohibition. Unfortunately, the stated objectives of the law enforcement officers, combined with the uneven and unpredictable enforcement of posted cannabis laws, did little to foster a spirit of community between smokers and the nearby police officers. While both sides generally behaved well, it was quite evident that current laws against the possession of cannabis serve to drastically undermine respect for the rule of law, and the trust young people have in police officers, while doing absolutely nothing to curb cannabis consumption. Several teenagers foolishly decided to roll a joint while sitting on a bench adjacent to a police van. While their marijuana was quickly confiscated, as they walked away one man openly cursed the police, as his friend pulled out a cellphone, already arranging to be resupplied. The incident further illuminated the absolute futility of our current scheme of recalcitrant criminalization.
Thankfully, the organizers of the event have thus far avoided police harassment. In Philadelphia, the organizers of the Smoke Down Prohibition events have faced arrest and limits on the ways in which they may contact one another. UK NORML has thus far avoided similar harassment by refraining from actually endorsing the illegal consumption of cannabis. A spokesman informed me that, despite the focus of the event, and a history of civil disobedience at past cannabis rallies, they made regular announcements informing attendees of the laws prohibiting marijuana use, thereby avoiding statues against advocating illegal activity. Despite the heavy rain, NORML volunteers still stood by as the event ended, sticking around to clean the field of refuse.
On the whole, the event felt like something between a block party and a political demonstration, though most attendees seemed more excited to party than talk politics. While the majority of the participants were under 30, a healthy smattering of older folks prevented the rally from being purely a youth movement. I spent some time with several young men near the center who, while not especially politically inclined, were still incensed enough by current UK cannabis laws to travel from the suburbs to publicly disobey the law in Hyde Park. This sentiment was echoed by many other attendees I spoke with, they had convictions regarding the current legal status of cannabis, but they were still more concerned with the summer festival lineup than the upcoming MEP elections. While quite rational, given how cannabis smokers have been treated by politicians in the past, it does not bode well for legalization in Great Britain. It did, at least, ensure that the rally didn't degenerate into a partisan blame-fest, as was common at similar rallies during the Bush years. One member of the Green Party spoke at the event, but was far less popular than the subsequent live music. The reclassification of cannabis under Gordon Brown seems to have out a damper upon hopes for legal change, most of the folks I spoke with expected that nationwide US cannabis legalization would come before England saw its laws change. Still, for most of the attendees, current cannabis laws don’t seem to prevent access to the substance, and you would be hard pressed to find an attendee who would convict a cannabis smoker if placed on a jury.
The media response was reactionary in the extreme, as is to be expected. An unnamed Daily Mail reporter writes that “just a few dozen activists” attended yesterday’s cannabis rally in Hyde Park, a blatant falsehood. The London Cannabis Club and UK NORML, cannabis advocacy groups, report handing out nearly 5,000 wristbands at the event. The Mirror managed to do a little better, reporting that “a couple hundred” individuals attended. Interestingly, the piece fails to include any crowd shots, instead opting for close-ups of a few shady looking hippies. No photos of retirees in wheelchairs sharing cannabis-laced brownies, or any mention of the moment of silence held for all those imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. After all, those sorts of things would hardly further the article’s objective, namely beguiling unwary readers into taking the event for a washed out meeting of antisocial addicts.
To end, despite the rain, Hyde Park saw a wonderfully legitimate use of the Speakers Corner as a forum for public debate and protest, and the halfhearted police response helped to illustrate the detrimental effect our current cannabis prohibition has on the rule of law and the public legitimacy of the police force.