Most people here haven’t a clue that when you're British 420 has a whole different meaning. Ask anyone in the UK about 420 and you’ll receive either a quizzical look or a knowing nod of the head.
There is no in-between, and the majority of people are completely mystified. Baffled national newspapers run headlines like “Why have thousands of stoners gathered in Hyde Park?” alongside a variety of incorrect suppositions on the origins of the term “420”.
In the UK, the day consists mainly of gatherings of a few thousand people at a time, across the parks of some of the major cities. The largest and most high profile of these takes place in London’s Hyde Park. Not for the first time, Cheese London went along to scope out the crowd and get involved.
On arriving at the park, it wasn’t hard to locate the epicenter of the event. A distant murmuring of megaphones and the muffled sounds of speaker systems could be heard from the entrance, and then, of course, large plumes of sweet smelling skunk smoke rising above a crowd of upwards of 5,000 people. There was no overall sense of organization — yes, there were a few makeshift tables set up by those who had helped rally and organize, like NORML UK—a leading pro-legalization political reform group — but otherwise, it seemed that the majority of people had come down with their friends just to sit around and share a few joints, much like they would be doing on any other sunny day in the park. So far, so celebratory. The difference here was that everyone was smoking, and not just that, but they were doing so in spite of a pretty heavy police presence.
And which is of course the point. From speaking to people we met and having been before a few times, it’s clear that each year the spirit of protest increases. Although it may not seem immediately apparent to those on the outside, there is a huge difference between just smoking a joint for the sake of getting stoned, and doing so in active celebration and support of a global movement. Why else would people risk arrest and prosecution just to smoke a few joints?
It reminded us of J-day, a now defunct pro-legalization march and celebration that ran from 1998 to 2006 in Brixton. It was different from 420 in many ways, mostly because it was a community driven event and generally lacked the excessive posturing of blatant weed consumption. But mostly because its intentions were clear from the outset. It was a protest, intended to instigate political change. It’s not hard to imagine that in a few years time, 420 will continue to lose some of its more flippant aspects and come to represent something similar in the UK, albeit on a much larger scale.
The global legalization movement is the strongest it has ever been. Popular hard-line attitudes towards cannabis are beginning to soften and, slowly but surely, with the US and Canada leading the way, more and more countries are changing their stance and, at the very least, beginning to recognize the medical benefits of cannabis. Here in the UK, we have some extremely high profile and well respected supporters of the movement, from Richard Branson to the leader of the Liberal Democrat political party, Tim Fallon, who is publicly calling for the legalization of cannabis for recreational use, and in the elections for London mayor in two weeks’ time, there’s a candidate standing for the Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol Party. We know who we’re voting for.
So while 420 remains a modest and largely unknown event in the UK, its profile and, more importantly, its intentions continue to develop and evolve. What started as simply an excuse to smoke weed, became a celebration and is now beginning to shape up as part of the global legalization movement. With the dying down of independent events such as J-Day, it’s inevitable that the larger, more high profile 420 takes on a greater significance. Remember, a pro-cannabis attitude isn’t just for 420, it’s for life.