From Albuquerque to Antwerp to Auckland, from Bakersfield to Berlin to Buenos Aires, in some 232 towns and cities across the globe, tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of members of the international cannabis culture took to the streets in the annual Global Marijuana March to demand an end to marijuana prohibition. Demonstrations ranged from handfuls or dozens of people in small American towns to more than 20,000 in Toronto.
musicians at Antwerp GMM demo, with ENCOD ''Freedom to Farm'' t-shirt
Now into their fourth decade, the Global Marijuana Marches (formerly known as the Million Marijuana Marches) have become a worldwide phenomenon, a chance for the herb's aficionados to come out and be counted. Long coordinated by veteran marijuana and ibogaine activist Dana Beale and his group Cures Not Wars
, the Global Marijuana March is now receiving assistance from Vancouver-based Cannabis Culture
magazine and its publisher, Canadian "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery.
Marches now take place on every inhabited continent and in small towns and large cities across the United States, which accounted for 118 of the 232 cities listed by organizers. Marchers hit the streets in 66 European cities, a surprising 21 Latin American cities, and 11 Canadian cities, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Israel and Japan.
The vast majority of Global Marijuana March actions came off peacefully and non-controversially, but there were dozens of arrests at the Nimbin Mardi Grass celebration in Australia, more arrests in Buenos Aires, and in Eastern Europe, both the Russian and Bulgarian authorities cracked down on marchers, although in Prague, thousands marched and smoked without significant hassle from the police.
The ugliest scene was in Moscow, where police waded into the crowd, beating demonstrators and arresting around 30 people, with four organizers being immediately tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 or 15 days in jail for holding an illegal rally -- Moscow authorities refused to issue a permit at the behest of the Federal Service for Control of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances -- and "promoting drug use," a crime in Russia.
Official attitudes in Russia, where the federal drug warriors called for a "tough response" to the rallies, was reflected in press coverage. "Marijuana Addicts Willing to Rally in Moscow" read one newspaper headline the day before the rally.
Similarly, if less brutally, police in Sofia, Bulgaria broke up a crowd of 400 marijuana marchers gathered in the city center in support of marijuana legalization. The marchers lacked a permit, police said. But in Prague, some 1,500 people held a march and pot party without police harassment.
Hungarian march poster (from kendermag.hu)
But it was the march in Toronto that drew the largest reported crowds. Some 20,000 people, many openly smoking pot, marched and rallied in Canada's largest city. That's about 8,000 more than marched in Toronto last year. Led by Emery, Canada's "Prince of Pot," speaker after speaker denounced marijuana prohibition to the cheers and applause of the good-natured crowd.
"So far Canada has the gold medal for attendance," laughed Emery. "Toronto was the world's largest Global Marijuana March, and a couple of weeks ago I spoke at the 4/20 rally in Vancouver, which was also the largest in the world. I'm a real magnet for large crowds," he crowed.
For Emery, the marches send an empowering message to people around the world. "The Toronto march got huge coverage, probably more than any other single event," he told the Chronicle. Emery was especially thrilled that the official Chinese news agency Xinhua picked up the story and quoted him saying: "It's incredible that 20,000 people are meeting only 100 yards from the legislature to demand that marijuana be legalized, to celebrate our culture and to defy the law with almost open sanction of the entire City of Toronto."
"If you're reading this in China and thinking, hmmm, Tiananmen Square was a mass action defying the government -- to me, that's the biggest accomplishment of all," he said. "Hundreds of millions of Chinese can read about us, and that's really inspiring. I'm happy that message got all around the world. People are seeing that they can defy the government and get away with it. I really don't understand how the press in a censored nation like China ended up printing that line, but I'll take it."
In Australia, the Nimbin Mardi Grass festival, a three-day event, drew 10,000 people, with police "arresting" 109 people, although 60 of those were busted for marijuana, which results in a ticket, not an arrest. Police also set up roadside drug tests and irritated festival goers by riding their horses among the crowd. But while police complained of the festival's "sinister side," festival organizers reacted with ridicule. In a Tuesday press release, festival organizers noted "Police miss opportunity to arrest thousands!" While dire police press releases dominated weekend news coverage, organizers noted that the festival had "one assault, 10,000 people -- no wonder so many police prefer the mellowing affect of cannabis at festivals."
The police should just stay away, organizers argued. "There is no evidence from cannabis users that the presence of the police or the Winnebago is going to make anyone stop smoking pot. And, ten thousand at MardiGrass being so peaceful is surely the best possible example of how cannabis does not create psychosis or pose the health risk [Australian politicians] John Howard, Pyne and Abbott keep trying to say it does. While they have been blaming cannabis for mental health problems, they should have been watching the ice age coming. Still their own revenue raising drugs, alcohol and tobacco, remain the most damaging physically, mentally and socially," they concluded.
Toronto march (courtesy Cannabis Culture)
In the US, crowds were not so large. Up to several thousand people attended the San Francisco Cannabis Awareness Day rally at City Hall Plaza over the course of a sunny afternoon, while a rally in Bakersfield drew 250 people, and one in Eureka drew a few dozen. Similar numbers were reported from across the country.
If the American Global Marijuana Marches were relatively quiet this year, so was the controversy that sometimes dogged them in the past. Some drug reformers have been critical of the marches, arguing they perpetuate negative stereotypes of marijuana users and don't advance a carefully-crafted political agenda, but this year, while there is some doubt about the marches' utility, there is little effort to discourage them.
"We've been all over the map on this issue," said National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML) founder Keith Stroup. Although officially retired, Stroup can still be found most days at NORML's downtown Washington, DC, office. "There have been years in which we have ignored the marches. The thinking was if they're not well-promoted and you don't get large numbers of people, you can leave the impression that only a handful of hippies care about this issue. We didn't want to reinforce negative stereotypes," he told the Chronicle.
"On the other hand, there is something impressive about this kind of grassroots activism," Stroup continued. "We certainly are no longer discouraging our folks from participating. In fact, part of the reason we changed our annual conference from the spring to the fall was to avoid conflict with state and local activists, many of whom wanted to celebrate 4/20 or the global march. Having our conference in the spring forced them to choose between the conference or the local events. This year, with the changed schedule, we probably had more state and local affiliates participating than ever before."
NORML associate director Paul Armentano told the Chronicle a dozen or so NORML chapters organized and coordinated local marches. "Our Bakersfield chapter had a big march, and we've also heard from Indianapolis and Boston and six or eight other chapters," he said.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the student drug reform group with chapters on more than 100 campuses, does not take a position on the marches, but its field director, Micah Daigle, is not particularly enthused by them. "The Global Marijuana March was not even on my radar screen," he told the Chronicle. "I'm working with the chapters to try to change campus policies, and I've never found these marches to be too helpful," he said.
But SSDP won't get in the way of chapters that do want to participate, Daigle said. "Our chapters are autonomous, and we like them to take the initiative. If they want to organize around a march like that, then great. But I've always thought rallies and protests should be part of a larger campaign, and these loosely organized marches I've never found very helpful. We're also not a purely marijuana-focused organization, but if our chapters want to do something with this I encourage them to do so."
Joep Oomen heads ENCOD, the European drug reform umbrella group, and helped organize the Global Marijuana March in Antwerp. For Oomen, such events are part of a toolkit of tactics for activists. "Nobody can claim to have the single best way to make reform work," he told the Chronicle. "It is a combination of things, and the Global Marijuana Marches are an important factor because they can show people there is more to be afraid of from prohibition than from a tolerant alternative."
See you on the streets next year.