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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

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game