I’m sat in the back of a taxi being driven down a long and winding road towards what I’m told will be a festival like no other. The first hints of what is to come waft their way through the window as we get closer – the pungent and unmistakable aroma of cannabis smoke. And it’s getting stronger by the second.
The driver has a grin on his face as we finally arrive. I can’t quite figure out if he’s stoned or just laughing at the sight in front of us – hundreds of fairly bedraggled looking campers, partly obscured even at this time in the morning by a thick fog of smoke, whilst a gaggle of hi-vis clad security guards look on, visibly confused.
Inside the giant hall behind them, all kinds of businesses have set up shop and are vying for trade. They’re an eclectic bunch, but they all have one thing in common – they’re all selling products in one way or another linked to the cannabis and hemp industries. There’s everything here from cheap plastic grinders, to high end bud-trimming machines, to a truly impressive array of smoking devices ranging in price from a few quid to hundreds.
For a second I get a sense of overwhelming deja vu. I feel I’ve been here before. Three years ago I was in Prague for Cannafest 2013, but this isn’t that. It isn’t Spannabis either, or Amsterdam’s Cannabis Cup. Where I am now, I have to constantly remind myself, is a field in Peterborough.
Yes, this is the Product Earth festival and expo, a very British celebration of all things cannabis, and it’s taking place despite our very British prohibition still being firmly in place.
Now in its second year and, I’m told, bigger and better than last year’s inaugural event, Product Earth, it’s safe to say, is a one of a kind event for the UK. Advertised as an ‘alternative’ trade show and festival, the reality is that for three long days at the height of summer, this small corner of the British Isles becomes our answer to Amsterdam. Not that weed is being sold here, you understand, but it is unmistakably present.
Peterborough Arena itself is stuffed full of stalls both waxing lyrical about the quality of their products, and painstakingly explaining their legality lest any law enforcement get the wrong idea. Among them can be found activist organisations such as the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs, whose President, Greg de Hoedt, was one of the speakers in the festival’s Seminar Zone on Saturday.
Joining him on the stage were the UKCSC’s Political & Government Liaison, Stuart Harper, and head of UKCSC Scotland, Chris Mackenzie. They were there to discuss the organisation’s latest campaign, ‘Right To Grow,’ the key message of which is that you cannot solve the problems of prohibition without addressing the issue of personal grows. This key issue, they argue, has been sidelined by previous campaigns which have focused too heavily on the need for strict regulation and have failed to understand that without the option for people to grow their own cannabis, the black market will continue to thrive and flourish.
One of their key tactics in spreading this message has been to reach out to law enforcement, particularly Police & Crime Commissioners, in order to bring them into the conversation. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with the clubs credited in part for Durham PCC Ron Hogg’s decision to effectively decriminalise personal possession of cannabis in his area.
As they explained to the gathered crowd, positive change can be achieved when the police are included in the conversation, and understand that they can work together with groups like the UKCSC in order to defeat a common enemy – the black market.
This idea was further elucidated by the day’s next speaker. Ben Twomey is a 22 year old who has already racked up a pretty impressive CV. As well as working with Ron Hogg in Durham, he has also worked alongside Warwickshire’s PCC, and even ran for election himself in the same area, polling a not-too-shabby 9,076 votes in the PCC election earlier this year.
Ben was keen to stress the importance of the PCC’s role when it comes to potential drug policy reform, pointing out that since the role was introduced, Chief Constables like Mike Barton in Durham are able to come out in support of reform without the threat of being sacked by the government. The PCC acts as a buffer.
Despite this, however, PCCs have been noticeably quiet – silent even in most cases – when it comes to the issue of drugs, as Ben himself found out during his own election campaign. This could be seen as a negative, he explained, but in truth it’s a definite improvement when compared to the recent past, where police chiefs and political candidates would bang on incessantly about being ‘tough on drugs.’
This silence, in Ben’s opinion, is at least in part down to the fact that candidates simply do not know their own position. This makes it vital that supporters of reform take the time to reach out to them personally. In some cases it may be the first time these people have ever heard any argument other than the status quo.
The main crux of his talk was based around the concept of being an ally of the law. Through the work of organisations like the UKCSC and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, he argued, activists have been able to move away from simply fighting the law, to the point where they are now able to join forces with the police and make the law work with, and for, them. This is a far more powerful position than reformers have previously been able to take, and Ben was full of praise for the the work of the UKCSC and LEAP in making it happen.
There were many other fascinating and insightful speakers to listen to over the course of the weekend, but it’s fair to say that even for me, doing so can become tedious. Reading about it can be even more so. Thankfully, Product Earth had an ace up its sleeve that truly sets it apart from some of the more dry and scholarly cannabis events held elsewhere in the world. This wasn’t just a conference, or even just a trade show. It was a full blown music festival as well.
Despite being only the second time this event has been held, the line up was pretty impressive, even if the revolving door of hip-hop artists rapping about how much weed they smoke might have got a little tired by the time Saturday’s headline acts took to the stage. The stand out for me was Akala, the fiercely independent and political rapper who has previously skewered the war on drugs in both his lyrics – “You can say they’re just locking up thugs, Imagine if they imprisoned every middle class kid that had ever held drugs. Oh that’s right, that’d be your kids!” – and in numerous interviews.
Slipping into his alter-ego ‘Uncle Pompous’ half way through a set that was, in my view, far too short, Akala brilliantly used humour and parody to entertain the crowd whilst educating them, something which has become his signature over the last ten years. You’d be hard pressed not to learn something whilst listening to him, and for most of the festival’s crowd this was a far more enjoyable way of doing so than simply listening to seminars all day. You can hardly blame them.
The rain that arrived after his set left most of the crowd desperately trying to find shelter, but had mercifully stopped in time for the masses to again gather for a DJ set from Mike Skinner, and Saturday’s bill topper, Grandmaster Flash. The crowd, naturally, loved it, and the atmosphere of togetherness engendered by a mutual desire to enjoy the moment was a welcome change from other, beer-soaked festivals I’ve attended. The fact that the bar was so far away from the stage may have helped, too.
Judging by the reactions of those I spoke to, it’s safe to assume that Product Earth will continue to go from strength to strength. If you ask me, it has already established itself as a serious rival to the continental events it respectfully mimics.
by Deej Sullivan