Who is the northlondonhippy? It’s a question I found myself asking two weeks ago after tuning into James O’Brien’s LBC Radio show, just in time to hear the self-proclaimed “fictional hippy and make-believe online drug activist” give a ten-minute interview about his new book, Personal Use, which describes his 36 years as a drug user.
Whilst his interview may not have thrown up anything particularly new or interesting for listeners already well-versed in drug policy, there was something about it that made me want to know more about this man. Perhaps it was the novelty of hearing an American lecturing the British for doing something stupid, or maybe I was just impressed that a caller had seemingly convinced Mr O’Brien that he might have been wrong about something. Either way, it peaked my interest, and as a result ended up interviewing Hippy – as I shall call him – earlier this week.
I wanted to know what had made him want to write this book, and why now. And more importantly, I wanted to get the view of an east coast hippy – albeit one who’s lived in the UK since the early nineties – on the current state of our drug policy, and what he believes the future has in store.
What follows is a fairly long and sometimes rambling discussion that touches on many aspects of drug policy, its successes and failures, and Hippy’s hopes for the future. I came away from it feeling that the man was an almost perfect embodiment of the frustration caused by decades of slow or non-existent progress, and that if more people followed his lead and spoke out, things could be different. He may be preaching to the converted in many ways, but if his preaching convinces those who are already converted to do something other than post angry Facebook statuses and Tweets, it will be worth it.
Deej Sullivan: Tell me a little bit about yourself, and why you decided to write this book now.
Hippy: I ask myself that question sometimes. I’m a big proponent of drug law reform and I thought a good way to get into it would be to just talk about my own life. I’ve taken drugs for coming up 36 years in June. I’ve done it regularly and responsibly, and it hasn’t caused me any problems, I probably put myself more at risk by writing the book than by taking the drugs.
During your recent interview with James O’Brien on LBC, you spoke about ‘coming out of the closet,’ as you put it…
Well a lot of people take drugs and everyone’s afraid to talk about it, that’s another reason why I wrote the book. There shouldn’t be any shame in it, any more than it should be criminalised. It’s a common thing. A lot of people take drugs and it’s just not right that we can’t talk about it.
So you would urge other people, presumably, to come out?
Absolutely. The problem is the stigma. As soon as you say you take any sort of drug outside of alcohol or tobacco people think less of you, and that’s wrong, there’s so many people who smoke weed or do a bit of coke at the weekend and it doesn’t make them bad people. It’s a combination of civil rights and human rights.
So what do you think would happen if people were to suddenly come out of the closet and be open about it?
Hopefully it would spark a more realistic conversation around the subject. We’ve got a government that just won’t engage with the issue. They have the same tired line they trot out whenever there’s any evidence to the contrary. I think if there was less hypocrisy – you know, how many people in government smoke weed? Probably more than anybody would ever realise.
On that theme of coming out then, why is it that you’ve chosen to use a pseudonym?
Because, making these sort of admissions… I appreciate the issue here… I have something to lose like anybody does so I’ve sort of halfway come out. I’ve told my story I just haven’t put my name – look I could tell you my name now, it would mean nothing to you. But it means something to me – I would probably lose my job. I don’t want to lose my job.
It would put your bosses in an awkward position…
It would, absolutely. They’d have to be seen to be doing something about it. Look I know i’ve put myself at risk, I know there’s a chance that it’ll come out who I am. The initial reaction from everybody would be ‘so what?’ but then I have to deal with the implications of it.
Do you have plans to eventually come out completely?
I don’t think I have a plan for anything, I’m sort of playing all of this by ear. I wrote the book, I let a couple of friends read it, they thought it was good, I decided to go ahead and publish it, other people have liked it… we’ll see how far it goes, you know, I made a joke on James O’Brien’s show that this could be my fifteen minutes and it really could have been. It still could be. But I’d like to think people are enjoying it. It’s meant to be enjoyable, it’s meant to be entertaining but it’s also meant to have a message.
I was surprised how supportive he [James O’Brien] was. He’d actually read the book – I didn’t expect to go in there and have him want to talk so much about the book, I thought we’d talk about issues. So I was a bit unprepared for it.
But the press here doesn’t cover it fairly; they’re happy to put the scare stories on the front page but when there’s anything positive it either doesn’t get reported or it gets buried.
An obvious question to me is ‘why should drug laws matter to everybody?’ And one of the thing I mention on LBC was the prison crisis. Based on a little bit of research I did before I went on his show, they say 15% of the prison population is there for drug offences. There’s around 84,000 prisoners so that’s around 12 or 13,000 prisoners [there for drug offences]. If they gave them an amnesty it would help reduce the prison crisis. It costs a lot of money to keep people in jail.
So the issue matters. It matters to everybody whether you take drugs or not.
It’s a big cost to society, in terms of policing, locking people up, trying to enforce laws that nobody really believes in. So how would you – other than writing a book about it – how do you think you go about changing things?
I think writing a book about it’s a good start. If I can get people to read my book, and, you know, read about a normal person who’s had a normal life and drugs have been a part of it and haven’t caused me any problems… If I’ve had any problems with any drug it’s probably alcohol. I stopped drinking completely 14 years ago. I still like to get fucked up I just do it with other things!
Do you find you are stigmatised for not being a drinker?
People automatically assume I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’m not, I took a conscious decision not to drink any more. It just stopped being fun. Hangovers made me feel terrible, and as you get older they get a lot worse! I don’t miss it.
You say drugs have never caused you any harm, but obviously the government line would be that drug are harmful – have you ever witnessed harm caused by drugs?
Oh absolutely. I’ve lost friends to different drugs, I’ve seen other people get into trouble with them, but like I say alcohol is the one I’ve seen them get in the most trouble with. Everything’s harmful! Getting in a car is potentially harmful, crossing the street is potentially – everything’s a calculated risk. You can minimise the risks of drug taking with education and regulation.
What impact do you think the changes that are happening around the world will have in the UK? In America for example, with legalised cannabis…
Well it’s hard to keep lying about it here when you can see real world examples of other systems working better. One of the things I touched on with O’Brien was the business aspect – it’s the fastest growing business in America right now. It’s bigger than the dotcom boom. That’s what they’re saying. And we’re missing out on it – the government’s policies are preventing capitalism from taking place properly! You have a market here already, it just needs to be legitimised.
Well they’re preventing it apart from one very small aspect which is GW Pharmaceuticals. It certainly seems as though someone in parliament has a vested interest in them doing well…
Well who donates to politicians? Pharmaceutical companies, breweries, and distilleries. They’re the ones who don’t want us to move onto anything safer.
So what do you think will be the argument that’ll swing it? Do you think it’s the business side, or the medical side for cannabis, or human rights, or…?
On the medical side I think it’s just cruelty not to allow people to have something that improves the quality of their lives. In terms of the recreational side I think it’ll be business. Ultimately the companies that are setting up in America are going to want to expand – they’ll open offices here, they’ll have a presence, they’ll start lobbying; that’s when it’ll change.Money changes everything. We’re missing out on so much tax, and business. Think of the jobs that would be created. Just take cannabis alone – there’s so many products that can be made out of it. Not just dispensaries, but seeds…it’s just endless. And we’re not seeing any of that here, instead we’re seeing people go to jail.
The need for change to me is obvious and it has been since I was old enough to think about it. They lie to you about cannabis and then you try it, and you discover that you don’t think you can fly, you’re not gonna jump off the roof. you find out it’s just this mild drug. The best comparison is caffeine. It’s in the same league as caffeine and we just don’t treat it that way.
The gateway drugs for me were alcohol and tobacco. They were the first things I experimented with they were the easiest to get hold of, and every adult I knew when I was a child used both.
What do you think is the biggest barrier to change in the UK?
The tabloids. The Daily Mail. You have to be seen to be tough on drugs, tough on crime, and they can’t seem to separate the fact that taking drugs isn’t really crime. Crime is murder, crime is theft – nobody’s going to argue that they are not crimes. Taking drugs is not a criminal act, we criminalise it unnecessarily.
But look at the Denver Post and the Cannabist – they spun it off into a website dedicated to it. There’s money around it in the media as well. The Daily Mail could profit from it if they wanted to.
Well they do, they profit from scare stories now…
Although the Daily Mail online isn’t afraid of putting up positive stories, it’s the print edition that avoids them.
Exactly. They do that to get clicks, to raise ad revenue.
Certainly. O’Brien’s people said that whenever they cover drugs as a topic it always does well. People are interested in it.
There seems to be an enormous amount of interest from the general public, and yet nothing seems to change…
Well they want to see reform, it’s the politicians that are afraid that they’ll be accused of being weak on crime. But if you’re strong on crime you should want police to do the right thing and concentrate on actual crimes. Going after teenagers with a joint in their pocket is a terrible use of police time. There were some crime statistics out last week – violent crime is up hugely in London. You’d think they’d want to throw their resources at that and not at a bunch of 16 year olds smoking a joint in a park.
Of course the government would tell you that drug use is down, and yet at the same time drug deaths are up…
Enormously. And that’s down to their policies – no one should die from taking drugs. There’s no reason for them to.
So there’s obviously a lot of public interest, but in your experience have you come across many people who are really vehemently anti-drugs?
I come across people that are all the time, but then when you talk to them about it and actually get into it, they change their mind. There’s a lot of lies, you know I work in the media and it amazes me if you mention weed someone will immediately mention psychosis, like it’s a fact. But if you actually bother to look, at best the research into it is questionable, at worst it’s completely wrong. And there’s a chance that it’s completely wrong because they went looking for it so they found it.
That is a narrative that seems to have really taken hold in this country particularly…
Yeah, in this country, but outside of this country you never hear it mentioned.
Right. And I don’t know why that is, or how you even begin to educate people when it’s so engrained for so long.
Well I think it was Dr Carl Hart and I can’t remember the other guy’s name, they had a letter published in The Lancet which tore it apart…
Yeah but who reads The Lancet?
Well the problem is that when The Lancet publishes something bad about weed it’s on the front page of every paper, and then a few days later when it’s completely ripped apart, nobody publishes it. It’s not sexy enough.
What’re your thoughts on the Psychoactive Substances Act?
Utterly pointless. The only good thing about it is that it doesn’t criminalise users, but it illustrates how stupid that is. Those cannabis substitutes are terrible, they’re dangerous…they’re horrible. But you won’t get arrested for possessing them. Or I can have a spliff which is safer than Aspirin, and I can get arrested for it. It just shows the stupidity of the laws.
But at the same time obviously it’s good that you don’t get arrested for possession.
Oh absolutely. I don’t think it makes a difference criminalising somebody for possession, so it’s a good thing that people aren’t being arrested for it. But they should extend it to everything else.
It’s an odd one I think because it’s kind of a backwards step and a forwards step at the same time – it’s a terrible law, but they’ve admitted that criminalising users isn’t the way forward.
Maybe that’s the angle that will get them to decriminalise everything else. If you’re doing it for these dangerous new substances, why not do it with the safer old ones?
So what is your outlook for the UK on drugs? Do you think change is going to come soon or..?
Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to happen soon, but I think when it does happen it’ll happen quickly. But there’s no reason for them to change, they don’t see the need to change. Even though it’s happening everywhere else. When Ireland and Poland have a more progressive drug policy than the UK you know something is wrong.
Do you think that kind of international pressure will make a difference?
Depends on how you pitch it to them. I’ll give you an example: I was talking to a friend about this a couple of weeks ago – imagine you live in Colorado and you’re thinking about where to go on holiday, and you think “I’d love to go to the UK, oh wait it’s a dry country I can’t smoke weed there.” Look at all the drinkers in this country, would they go on holiday to a country that banned alcohol? Of course they wouldn’t. So you’re gonna lose out on tourism.
Yeah, but the flip side of that – from the government – is always, well we don’t want drug tourism…
Yeah but these people wouldn’t be coming here specifically to smoke it, they smoke it at home. They’re giving up something they can do freely and easily in their own homes to come to a country where they can’t. It’d put me off. And more than half the United States have access to medical marijuana – thing about the people who need it medically.
Do you think that the medical argument will happen first?
I would hope so, because it saves lives. I still can’t understand why it hasn’t happened already.
Obviously the government would say that we have Sativex…
It’s not nearly as effective as actual flowers.
And anyone who knows anything about it knows that that is the case, but it is an easy argument for them to make.
It’s just cruel. It just lacks compassion. As most drug policy does.
So do you think it’s more likely that compassion will win out and medical marijuana will happen, or that money will talk?
I think it’ll be a bit of both. I think on the medical front…I mean how many kids with seizures do they have to see who benefit from it before they say ok you can have it legally? How many people have to suffer, how many people have to die? Before they see that it’s the right thing to do. But in terms of the recreational side I think it’ll be money. There’s too much money to be made, and it’s money that’s being spent now, it’d just be redirected into an actual business that would appear on somebody’s balance sheet.
I think you’re probably right that it will be money, because if you look at the coalition government a few years ago, they studied different drug policies in different parts of the world and came to the conclusion that ours doesn’t work, while others are more successful. And yet there they’ve created that evidence themselves and still don’t pay any attention to it.
And that’s something Theresa May tried to bury when she was at the Home Office. She doesn’t like facts when they don’t match her expectations. I think she must have some compassion in her, she just has to open her mind up to the fact that things aren’t the way she thinks they are.
She’s campaigned strongly against human trafficking and modern day slavery but seems to have this massive blind spot when it comes to illegal cannabis farms that are run by gangs that traffic kids in to look after them.
She just needs to open her mind. I just don’t know why she’s so closed minded to it. I mean I do know, it’s the papers.
Quite. It can’t be an evidence thing because the evidence is all there…
But she wants to just ignore the evidence and just carry on making the same mistakes. Even more so now that she’s Prime Minister. But I still hope there’ll be change. I was joking with a friend of mine that I should get a Kickstarter going to send a copy of my book to every MP. You never know, they might learn something. Although a lot of them will probably tell you now that the drug laws don’t work, but publicly they have to maintain that they’re tough on crime. But if I could do anything to convince them that it’s not a crime…I mean, I don’t feel like a criminal. I know that I do things that are considered criminal acts, but I don’t feel like a criminal. I pay my taxes, I work hard, if I want to sit in front of the TV and smoke a joint I should be able to.
You’ve said that you think money will be the big thing, but in terms of public pressure, surely part of the reason you’ve written this book is to increase the pressure from the public and hope that other people will do the same…
I’d like it to do that. Nothing would make me happier than if it got more people to speak out. But it’s hard to get people to care about it.
Do you think that the police themselves have a role to play in changing the law?
Absolutely. It’s one of the reasons why I love LEAP so much, because the police know that it’s bullshit. It needs to come from people on the inside, from police. If the police are telling you that it’s not working then you should pay attention. We’re up to 5 or 6 police forces now that have de-prioritised cannabis, they’re not waiting for the central government to do it.
Finally, what’re your plans for the future?
I’ve got ideas for another book. If all goes to plan I hope to put another one out in the autumn. The premise is I’ve solved the drug problem, and now I’m gonna solve everything else.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real, and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. Tweets @sullivandeej