Thousands of people gathered in Hyde Park yesterday to mark the yearly event of 420, and protest against the UK's cannabis laws. 420 is an American code word for cannabis with very esoteric, bizarre and not very interesting origins. However, what it means is that on 20 April at 4.20pm, some cannabis users take the opportunity to protest and demonstrate.
I'm all for drug reform. But I'm also completely against these sort of events. Not only do they not work, but they actually damage the cause and hold back reform.
The prohibition of cannabis is an irrational, unjust and deeply damaging policy that causes far more harm to our society and to individuals than cannabis ever has. It creates a massive £6bn criminal market, consumes £500m each year in law enforcement costs, and ruins the prospects of people with criminal convictions for choosing to use a substance which is scientifically proven to be much less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
Even worse than this is the denial of access to medicinal cannabis for those in pain. suffering and disability. This isn't just an injustice – it's an obscenity, and in my opinion the politicians who stand in the way have blood on their hands.
And reform elsewhere has already proved to be a roaring success. In America, legalisation has led to underage use declining, crime rates falling, and traffic fatalities decreasing. What's more, cannabis-friendly states are now reaping massive new tax revenues, which are funding hospitals and schools with money that would have previously lined the pockets of criminals.
So I can understand the frustration that encourages people to protest, and smoke en masse in public spaces. After all, I used to be one of them only three years ago. But eventually my colleagues and I decided to take a different approach, and began actually engaging with the Government.
In the last 18 months we have made more progress than any drugs reform campaign has made over 50 years. We have met with a succession of government ministers, senior politicians and select committees. We have changed minds in a way that has never happened before. We have provided briefings to Nick Clegg and his advisers, and the Lib Dems have even adopted our policy on medicinal cannabis word for word. And you may be surprised, but between the two main political parties, there is now more support for reform among Tories than Labour politicians.
Where cannabis is and isn't legal
Where cannabis is and isn't legal
Having been reclassified in 2009 from a Class C to a Class B drug, cannabis is now the most used illegal drug within the United Kingdom. The UK is also, however, the only country where Sativex – a prescribed drug that helps to combat muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis and contains some ingredients that are also found in cannabis - is licensed as a treatment
2/12 North Korea
Although many people believe the consumption of cannabis in North Korea to be legal, the official law regarding the drug has never been made entirely clear whilst under Kim Jong Un’s regime. However, it is said that the North Korean leader himself has openly said that he does not consider cannabis to be a drug and his regime doesn’t take any issue with the consumption or sale of the drug
MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty Images
In the Netherlands smoking cannabis is legal, given that it is smoked within the designated ‘smoking areas’ and you don’t possess more than 5 grams for personal use. It is also legal to sell the substance, but only in specified coffee shops
Although in some states of America cannabis has now been legalised, prior to the legalisation, police in the U.S. could make a marijuana-related arrest every 42 seconds, according to US News and World Report. The country also used to spend around $3.6 billion a year enforcing marijuana law, the American Civil Liberties Union notes
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Despite cannabis being officially illegal in Spain, the European hotspot has recently started to be branded, ‘the new Amsterdam’. This is because across Spain there are over 700 ‘Cannabis Clubs’ – these are considered legal venues to consume cannabis in because the consumption of the drug is in private, and not in public. These figures have risen dramatically in the last three years – in 2010 there were just 40 Cannabis Clubs in the whole of Spain. Recent figures also show that in Catalonia alone there are 165,000 registered members of cannabis clubs – this amounts to over 5 million euros (£4 million) in revenue each month
In December 2013, the House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill legalizing and regulating the production and sale of the drug. But the president has since postponed the legalization of cannabis until to 2015 and when it is made legal, it will be the authorities who will grow the cannabis that can be sold legally. Buyers must be 18 or older, residents of Uruguay, and must register with the authorities
Despite the fact that laws prohibiting the sale and misuse of cannabis exist and is considered a habit only entertained by lower-income groups, it is very rarely enforced. The occasional use of cannabis in community gatherings is broadly tolerated as a centuries old custom. The open use of cannabis by Sufis and Hindus as a means to induce euphoria has never been challenged by the state. Further, large tracts of cannabis grow unchecked in the wild
In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize the use of all drugs, and started treating drug users as sick people, instead of criminals. However, you can still be arrested or assigned mandatory rehab if you are caught several times in possession of drugs
9/12 Puerto Rico
Although the use of cannabis is currently illegal, it is said that Puerto Rico are in the process of decriminalising it
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
The US state became the first in the country to legalise marijuana in January 2014. In February 2015, President Obama recently said he expects to see more states "looking into" legalisation. However, it is illegally to grow more than six cannabis plants and to possess more than 28 grams of the drug
Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis. If you are court in California with anything up to an ounce of cannabis, you will be fine $100, but you will not get a criminal record, nor will you have to appear in court
Cannabis is grown in the wild and has been used to treat conditions such as gout and malaria. But, officially the substance is illegal to consume, possess and sell
What we've discovered is that working with system rather than against it can be hugely effective. On the other hand, protests and demos only help reinforce the negative stereotypes of cannabis users that the media and politicians have used to demonise us for so long. Seizing control of a public space to smoke cannabis is simply crazy. There are always young teenagers or children involved, and although the general public has been subject to false propaganda and misinformation about the drug, it only serves to make people more alarmed.
What people need to realise is that cannabis isn't a niche hobby pursued by a small number of people who enjoy listening to reggae. Neither is it a culture or lifestyle in itself. There are 3m regular cannabis users in the UK who do not want to be seen as some sort of rebellious group isolated from the rest of society. The small group of "stoners" that we are seeing on the news don't represent them at all.
Also, the UK is home to a self-serving group of researchers who regularly churn out almost identical "studies" on the harms of cannabis which are not reflected in the facts of actual healthcare records. Quite correctly, the UK attitude to cannabis is regarded as hysterical throughout the rest of Europe, Israel, Canada and the USA, where wiser counsel and evidence prevail.
So, for those who want to see reform, which should be everyone who supports a more effective drugs policy, embarrassing displays of public consumption are counterproductive. We are now winning this argument through considered, diligent and professional lobbying. The "free the weed" stoners, anarchists and revolutionaries are the enemies of progress. The way forward is to meet with your MP, present the facts and insist that policy is based on evidence rather than prejudice and media hysteria.
Peter Reynolds is the leader of CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform. To find out more go to: http://clear-uk.org/Reuse content