Sanders was pressured to postpone his group’s “end prohibition” rally and march scheduled for September 29 in London. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is out of step with his own political party and most of Europe because he supports the war on drugs while leaders and citizens of the UK and most other European countries are rejecting it, had placed himself “shoulder to shoulder” with George W Bush by advocating a global anti-terrorism war. Blair’s lockstep with the US made England a prime target for Muslim hatred, and officials worried that Sanders’ rally might give terrorists an opportunity to attack a lot of people.
“Other groups canceled their events after the terror attacks,” explained Sanders, who founded the Cannabis Coalition in 1998 after 20 years as a pro-pot campaigner, “but the arrests of marijuana users continued, and we felt that protesting those arrests should also continue.”
In the run-up to the London event, political and legal developments across the UK gave reason for hope and despair. After the Cannabis Coalition sponsored several large-scale marijuana festivals in the London suburb of Brixton, police announced they would stop arresting people for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Political leaders from across the ideological spectrum called for marijuana decriminalization or legalization, especially for medical marijuana users. Cardiff Labour member of Parliament Jon Owen Jones introduced a cannabis legalization bill. Home Secretary David Blunkett giving tacit approval to Brixton’s no-arrest policy.
Emboldened by pro-reform sentiment, Manchester resident Colin Davies, aided by Dutch coffee shop owner Nol Van Schaik, tried to open an above-ground Holland-style cannabis shop called The Dutch Experience on September 15 (CC#34, England’s first coffeeshop).
Police had assured Davies that he would not be arrested, but he was dragged off to jail before the shop had a chance to provide medicine to dozens of med-pot patients who had traveled to the grand opening from across the country. Van Schaik and several other Dutch nationals, including journalists, were also arrested, even though none of them were in possession of marijuana.
Davies and colleagues were jailed for 14 hours. Police misled journalists about how the arrests were carried out; their statements contradicted televised footage showing Davies and other patients being manhandled during the raid.
Officers later visited Davies and apologized to him for the arrests, but Davies was re-arrested a week later when police visited his home and seized a few grams of med-pot that he uses to overcome the pain of a severe spinal injury. He faces serious charges and a possible criminal trial, but observers are wondering why the police keep wasting their time: Davies has been on trial for marijuana before, and no jury has ever found him guilty.
At the time this article is being written, in late October, The Dutch Experience is still open in Stockport. More and more patients and recreational smokers are visiting the shop, and marijuana is generally available there.
In Scotland, 53-year-old multiple sclerosis patient Biz Ivol was raided in August. Her crime: making chocolate marijuana candies for elderly medical marijuana users.
“I think the government is criminal for not allowing people to have this plant,” she says. “I am ready to go on trial if I have to.”
During a summertime “Smokey Bears Picnic” marijuana rally, Southsea police almost outnumbered potheads, and began making arrests of sick and dying people for possession of marijuana. They harried the crowd, driving away dozens of participants, and then brought in a drug dog who rudely stuck his nose in girls’ crotches.
When cannactivist Jerry Ham protested police treatment of a handicapped smoker, he was thrown in the mud and carted away.
Ham was previously arrested in June, 2000 for possession of a “teenth,” which weighs approximately 1.75 grams.
“I am defending myself based on the European Union Human Rights Convention that was ratified into British law last year,” Ham said. “How can a law that prohibits a god-given plant not be a violation of human rights?”
Ham and other activists were on hand to witness the Dutch Experience takedown.
“After they grabbed Colin and the others, we got screwdrivers and unboarded the door,” explained Winston Matthews, a med-pot patient who is fighting marijuana possession charges in Crown court. “We started selling tea and coffee, and openly smoked weed. Three undercover cops came in, dressed like idiots. They looked like morons. I said to them, ‘I’d like to sell you cannabis, but the bloody police just stole it all.'”
Saturday morning was gilded by typical English rainstorms, but by the noon kickoff of the rally at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, the droplets had subsided and pot people gathered under stately trees, nervously watching a considerable contingent of police that was in turn nervously watching them.
A man with a shopping bag stuffed full of low-grade cannabis, the kind that would be more at home in a hemp store than a coffee shop, gave handfuls of weed away within 20 feet of where police were negotiating with Sanders about the rally and march. Sanders had already spent months handling the Royal Park Police, the Metropolitan Police, and the Greater London Authority, but officers were still trying to shape the event even after it started.
Police were particularly unhappy with Free Rob Cannabis, a Glastonbury hemp store owner, medical marijuana provider, and entheogenecist who pioneered marijuana giveaways and other civil disobedience at past London events (CC#25, Free Rob Cannabis).
Rob is a master of outrageous legalization “stunts,” including the time he sat with cannabis plants in front of the Downing Street offices of England’s Home Secretary (equivalent to the US Attorney General), and demanded to be arrested.
At previous Hyde Park rallies, Rob gave away and sold marijuana, and then encouraged dozens of people to join him at local police stations, where they all lit joints and asked to be arrested.
This year, Rob showed up at Hyde Park with his partner Minna, who helped him set up a table that he stood on while shouting through the bicycle-powered amplification system about marijuana spirituality. He also auctioned hash, bongs, and bags of Swiss-grown Hindu Kush.
“This is the first year we’ve had a police presence this size at a rally,” Rob said, warily eyeing officers who were creeping in to the edges of the large crowd that had gathered, hands outstretched, in anticipation of Rob’s famous “free cannabis” giveaway.
“The police are here because the organizers wanted a march permit,” Rob asserted. “Every other year, we have gone without a permit to police stations demanding to be arrested while openly violating the law. The police never arrested us. I wonder if things are going to be different this year.”
I stood behind a constable who was wearing a “police photographer” hat. He videotaped Rob throwing packets of quality hash and cannabis to the crowd.
The policeman’s colleagues were murmuring bemused disbelief and disapproval, even as the crowd shouted praise and gratitude.
“I think Rob is an angel,” said Rachel Simmons, a 20-year-old student from Chelsea. “Most people in England are forced to smoke this horrendous stuff called soapbar, which is a bit of marijuana mixed in with oil, rubber, plastic and other poison. When I met Rob in Glastonbury, he smoked pure marijuana with me, and I knew from the taste and how I felt that this was real marijuana, not the shit that we usually get in this country.”
The police officers didn’t share Rachel’s admiring view of Rob. They told me the videotape was going to be used as “evidence,” and I noticed that two dozen other cops had taken up positions around Rob’s gathering. I tried to get back through the crowd to warn Rob that he was going to be arrested, but a phalanx of bobbies blocked my way, knocked Minna aside, encircled Rob, and confiscated his medicine, books, bongs and Buddha statue.
Many members of the crowd quickly slunk away to join the queue of marchers who were already heading out of Hyde Park in preparation for a four mile march to Trafalgar Square. The few who tried to protest Rob’s arrest met with intimidation from police and fell silent, except for two young men who accused constables of being “foot soldiers of the wealthy elite.” They also told officers that enforcing marijuana laws was as morally wrong as enforcing laws against Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany.
I interviewed one of the men, an Italian who asked to be identified only by his “activist name ? Carlo.”
Carlo expressed disgust with Rob’s arrest, and with what he called the “passivity” of the “marijuanaists.”
He described himself as an “occasional” cannabis smoker and a veteran of “anti-capitalist” protests during meetings of world leaders in Sweden and in Genoa, Italy.
“I wonder when the marijuana people will realize there is a real war against them, and that symbolic gestures, such as festivals and marches provide an afternoon’s fun but achieve little,” he said. “In Genoa, 20,000 robocops protected the rulers of the world by beating and killing journalists, elderly people, pacifists, women, children, and Italian citizens trying to protect their homes. They smashed us with sticks, tear gas missiles, tanks, and bullets. The same thing happened in Goethenberg, Seattle, Quebec, and Washington, DC. It happens wherever those who disagree with the rulers gather in large numbers, no matter if our side uses direct tactics or not. When they arrested [Free Rob Cannabis] it was an act of terrorism. The people who had just caught the free bags of weed he threw just stood by and watched him get arrested without helping him. That sucks!”
I told Carlo that the terrorist bombings in the US had caused many North American marijuana smokers to view American-sponsored drug war persecution as unimportant, and to keep quiet about the Bush administration’s intention to suspend civil liberties and step up the drug war in order to “fight terrorism.”
“Until you have been surrounded by police and see how they enjoy harming us, like it is a sport, with their bosses watching with smiles from the upper windows, you will not be fully aware of what these governments are really about,” Carlo said. “The Italian premier, Berlusconi, is a drug war fascist with public ties to one of the world’s biggest terrorist organizations – the Mafia. I pray that these marijuana people will realize that they cannot trust what the governments tell them about terrorism or the environment or the class struggle. The world rulers and their media say that marijuana is deadly and you will use heroin from it. They obviously lie about marijuana – so how can you trust them to tell the truth about anything else? I laugh when the rulers define terrorism. If you want to see terrorism, look in your own country at the people who sit at home smoking cannabis and your police rush in on them. That’s terrorism!”
Soon after Rob Cannabis was taken away, approximately 2,000 marchers carrying pro-cannabis signs began trekking toward Trafalgar Square.
The bicycle-powered public address vehicle led the parade, playing cartoonish songs like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and acoustic gypsy-trance music.
A large police mobile command center and dozens of police escorts on foot and on motorcycles led us along protected single-lane routes on major streets, past the Lady Diana memorial, the Royal Academy of Arts, Green Park, St James’s Church, and fancy hotels.
Workers from restaurants, hotels, car dealerships and construction sites joined with tourists and other pedestrians to cheer the march as it went by. Some onlookers joined the marchers, happily toking joints and blowing whistles with those who had been smoking up since Hyde Park.
Within 90 minutes, we sighted the National Gallery and the lion statues of Trafalgar. The stoned marchers, by now about 2500 strong, crowded into the square and assembled in front of an underpowered public address system just as a massive thunderstorm and swirling gusts of wind hit London.
Drenched but defiant, pot people toked up in full view of 70 police officers ringing the square, while activists, smugglers, head shop owners, and medical marijuana patients shouted into the microphone about ending cannabis prohibition.
Backstage, I found Minna near tears trying to get hold of the microphone, so she could tell people that Rob was being held in nearby Charring Cross police station.
I volunteered to accompany her back to the station, and there identified myself as a journalist and asked a desk officer what was happening with Rob.
The officer said he was too busy to answer questions, having been left alone to deal with “all kinds of problems” because too many other officers had been pulled from their usual duties so they could watch the marijuana event taking place in Trafalgar.
“Somebody will come down here and tell you what is happening with your Mr Cannabis,” he said, articulating Rob’s name derisively, “but I don’t know when.”
Minna and I kept haranguing the overworked desk clerk, who at one point was taking a missing property report from a mentally ill street person who actually said, “I have lost my mind and I need the constables to find it.”
Eventually, the desk clerk put me in touch with Scotland Yard spokesperson Nick Jordan, who refused to even confirm if Rob was in custody.
“We have a person in custody who meets the description you have provided,” he said coyly, “but we don’t have to tell you his name or his status.”
I told Jordan I was amazed that the British police, whom I had held in such high regard because they don’t often resort to brutality or gunplay as do other police forces, were holding a citizen and refusing to tell the media, or his partner, what was happening to him.
Later, a Criminal Investigations Division officer who identified himself only as “Sergeant Shaw” came to the front desk to tell me that Rob was indeed in custody and wouldn’t be released for several hours.
“We seized quite a bit of evidence from him, and we are having it inventoried and analyzed as contraband,” Shaw said. “We are also reviewing videotapes from the park, and conducting an interrogation. I have my own personal ideas about his situation and the cannabis laws, but we are taking this quite seriously.”
Later on, I talked to Shaw outside the police station while he smoked a cigarette. I asked him if he knew that Rob made an annual ritual of distributing and smoking cannabis in Hyde Park and at police stations, and that he had never before been arrested during these activities.
“I don’t know his history, although it’s obvious he’s a political campaigner,” Shaw replied. “I can’t tell you why he was handled differently this year than in past years. I do know that it appears that he has broken several laws.”
After intense questioning, Shaw admitted that “spending all this time to investigate and hold a man for protesting the marijuana laws is probably not a very smart use of my time right now, when we have terrorists to worry about, but marijuana is still against the law and we can’t just look the other way.”
Nearly six hours after Rob’s arrest, I sat in front of the police station with Minna, waiting for Rob’s release. She was forlorn and tired, still without assurances that her partner would be released anytime soon.
“When the police came to get Rob I went off on them, saying things like ‘Can’t you see that you are controlled by prejudice and fear and illusion? Can’t you see that you are harming an innocent man and a blessed plant?’ They just looked at me like I was crazy. I am wondering if it is worth it for Rob to spend his life giving up everything for this cause. Hundreds of thousands of people smoke marijuana, but not many of them are trying to change the laws or supporting what we do. We really believe in marijuana, and we don’t want to rest until we have defeated the drug war, but I feel very sad about what this cause is doing to Rob and I,” she said.
We sat in silence for a prayers length of time, lost in the misty London twilight.
Shaw came out and lit another cancer stick, then walked over to us with a look of pity on his face, and handed Minna a handwritten note from Rob.
There was a heart drawn at the bottom of it, and the words “I can’t wait to hold you in my arms.”
Jolly good news
UK government relaxes marijuana laws.
British Home Secretary David Blunkett became a hero to many pot smokers when he announced in late October that he was advocating major UK drug law changes.
Acting on the advice of police, doctors, scientists, academics and bowing to the wishes of the general public, Blunkett said he’d reclassify cannabis so that mere possession of it would not be an arrestable offense.
Under existing law, people caught possessing cannabis face a maximum of five years in jail. People caught selling cannabis can be sentenced to as long as 14 years in jail. After Blunkett’s proposals are enacted next spring, possession of cannabis will be punishable by a maximum of two years in jail; dealers will face a maximum five year sentence.
British police do not formally arrest people for offense punishable with less than five years in jail. People caught with small amounts of cannabis or small numbers of cannabis plants would be issued a paper summons instead of being arrested. Legal analysts say prosecutors are unlikely to spend time on cannabis cases once the drug is reclassified from its current category on the British “schedule” of illegal substances to a less-alarmist category that includes anti-depressants and steroids.
Blunkett said he would recommend the legal use of cannabis-based drugs for medicinal reasons, subject to the outcome of clinical trials to be completed in 2003.
Don Wirtshafter, an American attorney, founder of the Ohio Hempery, and advisor to England’s premier medical cannabis research company, GW Pharmaceuticals, said that Blunkett’s announcement is an affirmation that GW founder Dr Geoffrey Guy had the right idea when he began growing tens of thousands of cannabis plants with government permission two years ago (CC#26, UK doc grows pharmaceutical pot).
“Dr Guy knew that cannabis contains valuable medicines,” Wirtshafter said. “He helped convince the government and medical experts to give it a look. They found that cannabis has extremely low toxicity and side effects, and Dr Guy found cannabinoid profiles that work for medical conditions and he is testing delivery devices that should be very useful for patients. GW’s main challenge was to use scientific methods to prove that cannabis worked and get government approval for cannabis medicines. We are on the verge of doing that.”
Blunkett’s announcement was also good news for Free Rob Cannabis, Biz Ivol, Colin Davies and Nol Van Schaik.
“We don’t know if the prosecutors fully understand what the Home Secretary has signaled,” Van Schaik commented, “but we believe our decision to open the first UK coffee shop, primarily so we could distribute cut-rate marijuana to medical patients, is in step with Blunkett’s change of direction. One of the reasons he gave for changing the policies is so police wouldn’t spend time or resources enforcing marijuana laws. The police worked hard to harm Colin and all the people who were counting on him for cannabis, and now they are going to have an even harder time justifying what they did. They should just drop all the charges and give us back our weed. They should leave weed people alone from now on.”
The Home Secretary denied allegations that his liberalization scheme is equivalent to legalization or an attempt to imitate Dutch marijuana policies, but he was criticized by former conservative leader Peter Lilley for not going far enough. Lilley said that the government should create “licensed cannabis outlets” so that marijuana delivery and sales would be free of criminal influences.
Van Schaik agreed.
“The British need public coffee shops, as we have in Holland, that are supervised to keep out hard drugs,” he said. “Everybody all across Europe, especially people who use cannabis medically, should be able to go to a clean, safe, classy place and purchase the best cannabis for reasonable prices. We applaud the Home Secretary for his historic step, and invite him to visit The Dutch Joint. If he wants to smoke a joint with us, I don’t think he has to worry about being arrested anymore!”
? UK Cannabis Coalition: PO Box 2243, London, W1A 1YF, UK; tel 0207-837-2720; email [email protected]; web www.cannabiscoalition.org
? Free Rob Cannabis: In Harmony With Nature Hemp Store, 1A Market Place, Glastonbury, England, BA6 9YU; email [email protected]; web www.freecannabis.com
? The Dutch Experience: tel 0161-480-5902; email [email protected]; web www.dutchexperience.org
? Smokey Bear’s Picnic: email [email protected]; web www.smokeybearspicnic.com