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50 years after the Summer of Love, why is cannabis still illegal in the UK?

The hippie mission to decriminalise marijuana remains a dream.

You always expect the sun to come out for hippies, as though they have their own Californian microclimate. But in Britain, the summer of 1967 started late and ended up rather rainy. Even though the weather didn’t live up to the look, this was the first Summer of Love. This is when pot became political, and it left a legacy of drug use that we still haven’t come to terms with.

Lee Harris attended the first Legalise Pot Rally in Hyde Park on 16 July 1967, and is a lifelong campaigner in the movement to legalise cannabis. Harris is a gentle man. He misses the colourful clothes and optimism of the 1960s, and he believes that if cannabis were legalised it would help reduce inequality and end the war on drugs.

Within two hours of our meeting in Hyde Park, he has dropped so many famous names – George Harrison, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg – that I wish I’d made bingo cards.

These names might still carry a certain cultural cachet, but the hippie mission to decriminalise cannabis remains a dream. These days, establishment figures confess to sparking up, and even the right-wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute has called for legalisation (it argues that making cannabis legal will raise £1bn in tax). Despite a number of US states having decriminalised it and medicinal marijuana now being available on the NHS, in the UK in 2017 you can still, theoretically, be jailed for five years for carrying a spliff’s worth of weed.

“This park has always been the centre of the cannabis debate,” Harris says, as we sit in the sunshine. He comes back every April for the 4/20 smoke-up on 20 April, which organisers say attracted an estimated 12,000 guests this year. “It was just a haze of smoke,” Harris says.

He stood for mayor of London in 2016 as the candidate for the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol party. “I met Nigel Farage and he said, ‘Oooh, I’ve read about you,’” he recalls.

Now a darling of youth-focused media, he even put in an appearance on Channel 4’s First Dates and was swamped by people asking for selfies at the 4/20 event. “All the kids know of me,” Harris says.

He remembers heavy-handed policing at pot rallies in the 1960s and 1970s. “Police were chasing them, and girls with their long skirts, and this is Britain and that’s supposed to be all right,” he says, leafing through a copy of his old magazine, Home Grown. “People don’t know this is repressive Britain. If people in other countries were treated like that, we’d be upset – but this is Hyde Park.”

By comparison, the 4/20 this year was calm; the police even helped organisers dispose of rubbish from the event after an administrative error left them with six bins instead of 60.

However, pro-cannabis campaigners don’t all agree. Peter Reynolds, the president of the campaign group CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform, says the movement that started in that warmish summer of 1967 hasn’t only “not achieved the goal, but has held back reform”.

Reynolds (who has a history of provocative statements and has previously been accused of making anti-Semitic comments) advises protesters to “wear a suit and look ministers in the eyes instead of dancing round a park with a silly hat on”. The protest movement doesn’t really want cannabis to be decriminalised, he argues. “They prefer their status as outlaws.”

Not so, says Stuart Harper, the political liaison officer for UK Cannabis Social Clubs and an organiser of the 4/20 event in London. “It’s nonsense, of course. Our clubs are for safety and not for fun.”

Harris agrees that the movement is fractured and laments how so many of the young people he meets indulge in conspiracy theories: “They all follow Alex Jones and David Icke and don’t know who Assad is because they don’t read the papers. They all say Paul McCartney’s dead, too, but he’s not and I know because I was at a party with his son, James!”

Alternative facts may proliferate in the pro-cannabis movement but science is in favour of decriminalisation. And yet the leading neuropsychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt says British drugs law won’t change under Theresa May (“She’s an authoritarian religious bigot”).

Research generally shows that cannabis is less harmful to the lungs than tobacco because it burns at a lower temperature, and that the evidence for the oft-mentioned link with schizophrenia is shaky at best. “In the past 50 years, since the campaign to legalise cannabis, consumption has gone up 5,000 per cent and schizophrenia has gone down,” Nutt says, “so if it’s causative, it’s pretty hard to imagine.”

However, he accepts that specially bred, THC-heavy skunk is linked to psychosis. “And why do we have skunk? We have skunk because we have prosecuted [for] cannabis. What happened when we started testing prisoners for cannabis? They started using Spice. It’s like when beer was banned during Prohibition in America and everyone turned to toxic moonshine.”

For his part, Harris wonders what the legacy of the summer of 1967 will be. “It was an extraordinary time,” he says. “To change something makes life worthwhile – to be a little part of it.”

I turn off my Dictaphone and he pulls a lump of Moroccan hash out of his sock, red-brown and dull as a clump of soil. I roll up and we smoke as he reads from Home Grown. If 4/20 is a protest, if the Legalise Pot Rally in 1967 was a protest, is this one? Despite a half-century of research and rebellion, most of us don’t have even the fuzziest idea where weed stands. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder