Article by David Malmo-Levine
Thinking of putting on a marijuana march or pot protest in your hometown? I have been organizing rallies and events for 20 years, both in Edmonton and Vancouver. Here’s some advice based on my experience and past mistakes.
- Accept the possibility of arrest. First of all, you must accept arrest as the possible price of pot activism. Remember that it is better to get busted out in the open with all your friends watching and the cameras rolling and the media there, than late at night, all alone, with no one watching. Once you have accepted arrest as inevitable (and our foes promise this is true), then you can decide to get arrested on your terms, not theirs. You are then free to crank the dignity and fun level up to “11″ – have a bud raffle, best plant contest, and so on.
- Learn from others. Plenty of event organizers are floating around who have hard-earned and valuable insights. Join the discussion on various internet discussion forums, and get in touch with other activists.
- Pick the right time and date. A good time to start your event is 2pm. Any earlier and you will have smaller crowd. The biggest rally in Vancouver is April 20th, and the biggest rally in Toronto is the Global Marijuana March – always the first Saturday in May. Remember that most people have jobs and often cannot attend events during their workday. Another great day for a rally is July 1st – “Cannabis Day”.
- The best opportunities for a successful smoke-in are when another large crowd is keeping the police busy and the streets are full of curious onlookers, like holidays, fireworks, etc. However, you don’t want to compete with other major events that might draw away your crowd. Try to work synergistically; perhaps you can time your event so that you get people who are leaving an earlier event.
- Make a poster. Find someone who can design a poster with eye-catching graphics and easy-to-read text. List the event’s time and place clearly, as well as attractions like speakers, drummers, marching bands, face painters, circus performers, free marijuana, and so on. If you can come up with prizes, your poster should say “prizes will be handed out for best costume and sign” and “no booze or anger, but bring all your buds.” It should also include a contact number “to volunteer, help put up posters or for more information.”
- Posters stay up longer with a 10:1 mix of water and wood glue. They stay up even longer if you haul a ladder around with you and put them high up. That or attach a brush to a long pole and balance the poster on the end of it after having prepared the pole and the brush with some glue. Have smaller posters ready for small poles. Add a dash of eye-catching color to the posters by coloring the pot leaves.
- Print an easy-to-read leaflet (mini-poster) to hand out at rock concerts, skate demos, festivals and other youth-culture activities. Distribute posters and leaflets to all compassion clubs, hemp stores, youth retail stores, clubs, alternative and campus radio, and newspapers.
- Print as many posters and leaflets as possible, but use what you print. 10,000 leaflets and 1,000 posters can cover a major city. Distribute them through school, work, and activist networks.
- Posters and leaflets should be printed and ready at least eight weeks before your event. Your entire city or region should be covered by them at least one month before the day of the smoke-in.
- Make banners. Banners can be hung behind and around the speakers and any musicians. They can also be carried during a parade. Simple slogans and big pot leaves always work well.
- Try to get a permit. Your permit will almost certainly be denied, but you should ask anyways. If a permit is denied, hold the smoke-in regardless, citing your constitutional right to free expression. Either way, send out a press release immediately regarding the city approving or withholding a permit – it’s an opportunity for advance publicity for the rally.
- Do not sacrifice any previously-gained tolerance (such as glass pipe sales) to gain a permit, as it is better to go without a permit than without dignity. Trying to work within the bureaucracy can often drain your energy and dilute your focus. If a permit is obtained, think about obtaining a real sound system and some rock bands. If you are planning a very large event, then insurance should be considered. Try to find a sympathetic lawyer to agree to help out if something goes wrong with the permit application or if someone gets busted. Unless you have deep pockets, you should look for an activist lawyer who will trade free legal services for an opportunity to address the crowd.
Send out a press release. All local and regional media should be told of the event at least one week before the event. Make sure your fax press release has the date, place, time, reason for being and contact info. You should also call up sympathetic reporters to tell them personally about your event and invite them to attend.
When being interviewed by the media, pick a simple theme in advance and keep repeating it.
- Keep it peaceful. Make an announcement at the beginning of the smoke-in that everyone there swears on their honor to not hurt anyone, not break anything, but to just make a whole lot of noise. That really gets the crowd going and deters provocateurs.
- Plan out your parade. If there is to be a parade, make sure the most stoned people are not leading the crowd. Have some solid folks out front, carrying a big banner. Make sure they pull it tight so people can read it. Also ensure that they walk really slowly, to keep your mob tight. Have a well-planned route that your front-banner-carrying folks all know ahead of time. Make sure your route doesn’t send you head-on into oncoming traffic, that it is in a very public, high foot-traffic area, and that your route is given to the local fire department.
- Give away marijuana. If you can afford it and are brave, then joints or other canna-treats can be given out. Make sure this is done within the middle of the crowd, quietly, perhaps even with the distributor wearing a “Groucho” mask. You can also ask the crowd to sit down in groups of five and pass them one joint each and ask them to share. Getting them to all sit down first is essential, as otherwise there will be a stampede.
- Film the police. Have some brave people designated to follow any “harassment” cops around with cameras. They should constantly ask the police officers questions, such as why there are “grow busters” but no “rape busters,” or their thoughts on the relative harm of cannabis as compared to caffeine, alcohol or tobacco. The people wielding the cameras should be firm but polite with the police, and should not have any marijuana on their person. Their goal is not to enrage the police, but rather to keep them distracted and show them that they are being filmed.
- Get musicians. If you have money, pay talented musicians to perform drug-peace songs, or thespians to perform short drug-peace dramas. Otherwise convince them to perform for free or for a few joints.
- Have a literature table. If you live in British Columbia, contact “Sensible B.C.” at sensiblebc.ca … (provide link to downloadable info here).
- Collect names and numbers. Remember to collect names and phone numbers of smoke-in attendees who want to help with the next smoke-in or other activism.
- Send the video of your event to our website here: (link to page about uploading videos).
- Keep it fun. It’s usually better to keep your event light and positive. Try to make your event a fun celebration rather than an angry protest.
- Nobody is expecting perfection – your best efforts will be more than enough to get the job done.
“Hug Power” is a technique that may be practiced in some of the more tolerant areas. It can be very effective in stopping police arrests, but it is a risky tactic that will only work under the right circumstances.
Hug Power is used when you wish to deter and prevent arrests, sometimes even resulting in an “un-arresting” or “de-arresting” of the cannabis criminal out of the hands of the police.
Hug Power is practiced simply by a group of people all hugging the person who is being unfairly arrested. If a large number of people are all holding on tightly to each other, with the intended arrestee in the middle, then the police have to pull off a large number of non-violent protesters to reach their target.
I have used this technique at a number of rallies in Edmonton and Vancouver. We have successfully stopped the police from making their arrest a number of times.
To practice Hug Power, you need the crowd to understand what to do. Make an announcement at the beginning of the rally after the anti-provocateur speech.
Take a poll and find out if people are prepared to defend each other using non-violent arrest-resistance tactics. Explain to the crowd that Hug Power does not mean “hug the police” – it means “hug the person getting arrested.”
Explain that Hug Power only works on victimless criminals, and only works when video cameras are around to record the unjustifiable use of force by police. Explain that one is not to touch the police during Hug Power. The point is to obstruct the arrest only. Police should always be spoken to politely, but firmly.
If you are practicing Hug Power, be prepared for the real possibility of getting roughed up or beaten by the cops at some point. The cops still have “Rodney King-o-phobia” – they hate getting caught on film using force without clear justification. So be sure to have plenty of independent cameramen and videographers at all your events! The chance of being caught on film is the best deterrent to police violence and your ultimate victory.
There’s no financial reason to not protest insane, evil, monopolistic pot laws! You can organize a public rally with as little as $300 – here is a list of what you need, with approximate costs, in order to hold a “basic rally”:
- Posters, buckets, brushes, glue: $100-$200
- Signs and banners: $100-$200
- Press release & fax machine: Borrow
- Megaphone: $15/day rental
- Or better yet… Microphone and amp: $40-$90/day rental
- Hemp string/rope (for putting up banners): $10
- Garbage bags: $5
- Broom and dustpan: Borrow
- A few joints for 4:20 and volunteers: $50-$100
- A musician with an acoustic guitar: Slip them a joint
- Reps from med clubs & activist groups: Slip them joints
- Prizes for best costume, sign, plant: Hemp-store donations
- Camera crew – video and still cameras: Slip them joints
- Bottles of water: $30
- First aid kit: Borrow
The second list is for a “Fancy Rally”, which is everything “Basic” plus promotion and equipment upgrades, and a budget for “special touches”. This type of rally will require sponsors and patrons of the rebellious arts, perhaps an association of seed breeders or sellers, hemp store owners, growers and dealers:
- Posters and banners: $1,000 minimum
- Ads on radio and in weekly papers: $1,500
- Sound system and system operator: $800-$2,200
- Rock, jazz, folk and/or reggae bands: $400-$1,000 each
- Stage: Prices vary
- Fly-in speakers and entertainers: Prices vary
- Large open-air tent: $300 to own; can be rented
- Chairs and table: Borrow or rent
- Pamphlets, CC back-issues and other info: $300
- Raffle tickets, 1 roll: $20
- Fabulous prizes: Donations from hemp store/seed shop
- Free cannabis/hash: Donations from growers or dealers
Total: $4,500-$10,000 (or more)