The UK Weed Activists Lighting Up in Public

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This July, a member of Parliament stood up for the rights of cannabis consumers. In protest of government inaction over medical cannabis, Paul Flynn, the Welsh MP encouraged civil disobedience in the form of public cannabis consumption—a demonstration now scheduled for Tuesday, October 10.

In his address, Flynn also mentioned how he helped Elizabeth Brice, a journalist and filmmaker, consume cannabis tea in Parliament in order to manage symptoms of her multiple sclerosis.

“Had we been caught back then, she would have been liable to go to prison for seven years for drinking that tea, and I probably would have been accompanying her,” Flynn tells me, recounting the events of that afternoon he spent with Elizabeth Brice—a key source of inspiration for him to campaign on this issue. Since taking such a clear and strong stance against the current cannabis law, I ask him what negative feedback he’s received from colleagues in response to his speech. Surprisingly, he tells me that “there has been none… I’ve received plenty of emails and messages since my speech, all of them have been in support of my comments.”

Flynn also feels that the public is behind him, and proudly points out a poll conducted by the Western Mail (or Wales Online), which saw 93 percent of readers backing his stance.

Of next week’s protest, organized in cooperation with Flynn, which will see activists from different organizations coming together to consume the plant publicly at Westminster, he says, “I hope to see hundreds of people consuming cannabis on Parliament Green—I just really, really hope that no one smokes it. I think it’s most sensible to consume as a food or a vapor; smoking is harmful to our health.”

A musician who has a similar, yet obviously very different, approach to his activism is Black the Ripper. For him, smoking weed in public is a daily occurrence.

He absolutely adores the culture, sight, and smell of cannabis, and recently launched an internet challenge daring his fans to light up big joints in public spaces. The culture around his brand is to “Light Up Everywhere,” meaning take complete disregard for your surroundings, whether it’s done in the spirit of a prank or as an act of civil disobedience.

“Smoking in public means freedom. It’s an expression, just how some people dance in public or sing; it is an expression,” he tells me while we enjoy a joint made of his own strain, Dank of England OG, in a north London parking lot. “It’s fun to troll the nation, which is so brainwashed and so scared of whatever fake rules have been set for them. It’s also because I just like to smoke whenever I feel like it; I’m not gonna hide somewhere to smoke.”

Black’s stunts range from lighting up in his local supermarket, to a pod on the London Eye, and even at the front door of his local police station. While Flynn and some cannabis consumers won’t be in favor of Black’s methods, the artist sees himself as normalizing the culture in a more direct way: on the streets. In doing so, he’s been covered a fair amount by local and national newspapers.

“It’s been demonized so much,” he says. “That’s why everyone has these reactions.” When I ask him what he means by “reactions,” he tells me about many of the negative interactions he’s had with members of the public: “When people look at me in disgust, I’m actually looking at them in disgust. Anyway, most of the time I get positive reactions—this is what lets me know, most people love weed. So many people say, ‘Wow, that smells good,’ or, ‘Can I have a toke?’ or they want to chat. Or they just smile or nod, to let me know they don’t have a problem with it.

“Cannabis culture is originally an underground culture, but people like me are forcing it overground. I’m an activist in my own way; everyone is different. I’m not going to march in the streets and ask for my rights—I’m just gonna take my rights.”

In the fight against the cannabis stigma and drug laws, it is usually medical cannabis users around the world who have led the way. For them, there is an obvious urgency to be able to access and destigmatize the drug, so they tend to campaign the hardest for legalization.

Photo by Jake Lewis

I speak to Owen, a medical cannabis user from London who served in Afghanistan as a soldier. He uses cannabis to manage the PTSD the war has left him with. “The thing is, I need to be able to medicate freely—this means I haven’t got much of a choice when I want to take cannabis,” he says. “Owen uses a herbal vaporizer, which tends to be more discreet for public use. But occasionally, when the battery runs out or there’s a malfunction, he needs to smoke a joint. “When I’m not medicated, something as simple as someone dropping something or slamming a door can trigger hours of hyper-vigilance,” he says.

Justifiably, he is fed up with dealing with the stigma around cannabis. “I just want it to be normalized and accepted, so that people don’t look at me funny, or move their children away, or give me a dirty look,” he says, adding that, ultimately, his priority is to manage his sickness: “To be honest, I’m not that bothered about what people think. I’m not paranoid about public use, because at the end of the day, I would be really sick without it. I’ve never been caught by a policeman—but I’m not a criminal; I know I’m not, so I don’t care.”

On the other hand, one recreational user I speak to tells me that he only smokes cannabis at home or on hikes. “Basically where there won’t be anyone else around,” he says. “I don’t like smoking in public, I can’t relax. Some people walk down Oxford Street with a joint in their mouth; I don’t get how they get away with it.”

One entrepreneur is capitalizing on the discreteness that some cannabis consumers seek. He produces an air-freshener device called the Neutralizer—specifically designed to eliminate the strong smell of really good weed. “In the UK, in places like Liverpool, they have a ‘use it and lose it’ campaign to evict council tenants who smoke,” he says. “Drivers who don’t want their car to smell use it, and growers also love the additional security the product provides.”

Even in places where it is entirely legal to smoke, such as Colorado, tourists still have limited options due to the lack of venues where consumption is permitted, meaning you still have to have a degree of audacity to light up in public. “Our customers range from students in their dorms to older cannabis smokers who take it abroad so they can have peace of mind in Airbnbs and hotels,” says the entrepreneur.

So really, it’s up to you whether you are comfortable consuming cannabis in public or not. If you’re not bothered about perceptions, either because you’re a carefree recreational user like Black the Ripper, or because you are a medical user who sees eye-to-eye with Paul Flynn’s perspective, lighting up in public is your own prerogative—just be aware that the law still isn’t on your side.

 

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