“Smokey Bears picnics”, “Smoke-ins”, “Smoke ups” or – as they now seem to be called – “smoke outs” have been a tactic used by the legalise cannabis campaign for a long time. Essentially, people get together to openly smoke cannabis in defiance of the prohibition law. Over the years these events have taken various forms from small scale “picnics” to large scale marches.

I’m open to be corrected, but the first of these would seem to have been in Hyde Park in 1967

Several such events took place throughout the 1970’s in Hyde Park, most times without incident or interference from the forces of law and order. After something of a lull, another wave of demos happened in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, including “Free cannabis in the park” picnics organised by Free Rob Cannabis and Smokey Bears picnics. Smaller events also happened around the country, most notably in Portsmouth (where the bear seemed to live) and Norwich, home of the original CLCIA and LCA.

In 1998 the Independent on Sunday ran a short lived “Decriminalise cannabis” campaign which sponsored a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square

Over the next few years large marches and festivals happened in London’s Brockwell Park, attracting over 20,000 people to the march and many more to the park.

You can see more accounts of past events here

So direct action events like this are nothing new and they are certainly fun, they give a sense of cultural solidarity and give the cannabis enthusiast something to do. Question is, what did these demos achieve? Sadly thus far the result has been zilch. Prohibition is still with us and nothing has changed and indeed, things have got a lot worse.

Back then though, it did seem like we were pressing on an open door, cannabis law reform was news and things were changing. The police in Brixton had adopted a softly softly approach toward cannabis use which seemed to be a move towards a decriminalisation which would role out across the country. Shortly after came the move of cannabis from class B to class C of the misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA).

The aim of the demos was to ride this wave of optimism and to get the average cannabis user to stand up and demand his or her rights, but in all honesty it didn’t happen, the population didn’t stand up and be counted. In truth most cannabis users didn’t get involved for whatever reason and by the mid 00’s the cannabis law reform movement was frankly out of steam and falling to bits. It was easy for the Daily Mail and its ilk to paint cannabis campaigners as selfish, uncaring about the harm cannabis was claimed to be causing. A sustained press campaign against cannabis took the form of the reefer madness V2 scare, the government of Gordon Brown played the populist card and reclassified cannabis back to class B.

However, if anyone thought the law reform campaign was dead, they were wrong. The reefer madness scare managed to bring about an understanding in the general public that the big problem we had with cannabis was two fold: The type of cannabis being sold (the “skunk” panic) and the number of young kids getting stoned. In addition it was becoming clear that we had a big problem with organised crime – industrial scale cannabis farms involved in people smuggling and extortion, violent crime increasing and so on. The agenda had changed from “free the weed” to “control this prohibition created anarchy”.

This new agenda has begun to show great results. The victories in Colorado and Washington State ballots which legalised recreational use there came on the back of creating a regulated regime for the commercial trade, protecting youngsters and raising taxes. A leglised regime is now seen increasingly as the best way to restrict cannabis use to adults, to control the trade and to reduce harm, it is a very different argument now compared to 10 years ago.

Also, something else happened, tobacco use has become far less socially acceptable. The restrictions on tobacco use are generally popular and tobacco is seen and understood by most people to be the dangerous, destructive and addictive drug that it is.

This year has seen something of a resurgence of the old “smokey bear” tactic with gatherings like the Hyde Park 420 day and more recently a whole series of similar events organised by groups under the banner of cannabis social clubs, their job made easier by the event of social media , especially Facebook. Now called “smoke outs” or simply “peaceful demonstrations” this idea is the same; people gather somewhere and defy the law.

Is this a good thing?

Well a large part of me says “yes it is” because personally I have a lot of sympathy for people who want to stand up to bad laws. Indeed we can look to history to see examples where this has happened – the trade unions campaign for recognition, the Civil rights movement in the USA, Gandhi’s independence campaign in India or the Stonewall fight for gay rights more recently. None of these rights would have been won without people peacefully defying the establishment. There is no doubt that civil disobedience, challenging unjust laws and – lets be honest – down right law breaking is often the only way that rights are won and bad laws come to an end. After all, if everyone simply touches their forelocks and does what they’re told nothing is ever going to change. In short I don’t have a problem with anyone who decides to make a demonstration of defiance of a bad law.

This is how the organisers and participants in this latest resurgence of the smokey Bears Picnics see themselves, they are fighting for what they see as their right to use cannabis without interference by the state. The problem is, that isn’t where we are now and it isn’t where the law reform debate is going.

The worldwide march toward change is built on the widely understood need to control the commercial trade, close down the black market and to restrict access to cannabis by kids. All the movement towards a legal trade we see involves an age limit for sales of at least 18 or even 21. So what message do the smoke-outs give?

The first problem is perhaps inevitable with any kind of defiant direct action, it’s likely to attract younger people than older. An event that pulls a large proportion of teenagers – albeit late teenagers – is kind of missing the point and somewhat shooting themselves in the foot. Do these campaigners support the idea of age limits for sales? If so a large proportion of the people attending will be excluded.

The other big problem of course is tobacco. Here we have a public demonstration of people smoking huge amounts of tobacco because – apparently – it’s an important part of the cannabis culture. How good does that look, really? How helpful is it to the cause of cannabis law reform?

Worse, when people puffing away on tobacco filled joints explain they are fighting for the right to use cannabis medicinally I cringe. Tobacco is everything that cannabis isn’t – it’s a carcinogenic, addictive killer. Cannabis isn’t cancer causing and doesn’t kill, but only if it’s used pure and not mixed with tobacco. I know there are medicinal activists who support this sort of direct action, but I also know there are a hell of a lot who do not, who are repulsed by the “joint smoking stoner” stereotype. Unfair as that awful stereotype is, the smoke-outs only re-enforce it.

It’s worth pointing out that in the US they don’t have this tobacco connection with cannabis to anything like the same extent we do. The smoke-out demos over there are really for cannabis.

The wonderful changes we’re seeing around the world today are not coming on the back of people demanding their right to get stoned so much as an understanding of how ineffective prohibition is at doing what it claims to be doing – controlling the drugs trade. Change is coming not because of a desire for greater freedom of choice on the part of cannabis users, but the failure of prohibition to be an effective legal tool. Prohibition isn’t dealing with reality, simple as that.

So my feeling about these smoke-out events is mixed. I do see a role for civil disobedience, to openly challenge a bad law, so I support the idea of events designed to do precisely that. But that said they shouldn’t undermine the arguments for law reform that are being taken seriously and which are showing support way beyond the recreational cannabis consumer. Any form of direct action should support the argument for age limits for sales and awareness of safer use techniques.

In particular, if I had to pick one issue, it would be the need to distance cannabis use from tobacco because the tobacco connection is by far the biggest health risk posed by cannabis use and can only serve as a barrier to making cannabis use acceptable.

Fact is we do have to break this prohibition log-jam and opening the door to recreational use is the key to doing that, but it will be a controlled, regulated access. That might be an anathema to some, but it is the real world. Prohibition is justified on the back of preventing young people “abusing” cannabis, nothing else really. That excuse is used to justify denying all the other uses of this wonderful plant. If there were to be a way that adults could use cannabis legally for fun – even with the most stringent restrictions – it would open the door to everything else cannabis has to offer. I suppose it comes down to asking just what it is we want to achieve, but it isn’t “free the weed” any more.

This post originally appeared on CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform