It’s fair to say Antwerp is not famous for cannabis. Cannabis has a secret existence there that is tolerated, to a certain extent, as long as you keep it to yourself. Once a year, the hardcore cannabis community gathers to celebrate Cannabis Liberation Day, better known in Dutch as “Cannabis BevrijdingsDag”, which I’m ashamed to say I would not even know how to begin to pronounce.
Antwerp is the city with the largest population in the Flanders region of Belgium. It’s complicated, but Belgium is split into two main regions, each speaking a different language and having a very different culture. In Flanders, they speak Dutch and in Wallonia, they speak French. There is also a German speaking region and a bi-lingual one – Brussels. Told you it was complicated.
Antwerp is famous for two things: diamonds and fashion. It’s great for shopping, and Antwerpens have a distinct style that is a refreshing change for visitors no matter where you come from.
Winter in May
Anyone who has lived in Belgium for longer than a week learns that the weather is not your friend. Having been beautiful for the last ten days, things took a wintery turn, pretty much as soon as I arrived in Antwerp. It was sunny when I left my home just an hour’s drive away, leaving me at least one fleeced layer short of being adequately dressed.
Despite the February-like conditions, a healthy crowd of people showed up to listen to the leading Dutch speaking activists and bands that gathered on stage in the Dageraadplaats, a town square situated to the southeast of the glorious Antwerp Central Station. The event was organized by the Cannabis Social Club “Trekt Uw Plant” (Pull Your Plant), the first official cannabis social club in Belgium.
RIP Joep Oomen
Trekt Uw Plant was founded by the Dutch cannabis activist Joep Oomen, who sadly passed away earlier this year. This year’s event was in his honour. I hardly speak any Dutch, but a common word I heard throughout the day was “Joep”. His portrait hung on the back of the stage, making sure his presence was felt.
At one end of the square there was a great variety of hip-looking restaurants. In front of this was a child’s playground (complete with children playing) and inevitable bicycle parking. Then, a basketball/soccer space and finally a modest fenced-off area with a few tents, chairs, and stage. There was a healthy police presence, but not in any way that was intimidating. Belgium is a democratic country and people have the right to gather and freely speak their minds.
I asked one of the police whether he thought there would be any trouble today. He was steely as I approached, but on this question he could not help but flash a grin to his colleague as he said “no”, whilst shrugging his whole upper torso and bottom lip in a typically Belgian manner. His age told me he had been a cop a long while and he knew as well as any that cannabis use does not add up to violent behaviour.
I asked him what he thought of the event, and “any music event is good for a neighbourhood” was his diplomatic response. I pressed a bit more the point I meant and asked about the subject matter. “The topic is a bit…,” was his response. It seemed he could not find an English word to explain what it was a bit of, so I asked another question to spare his inability to comprehend why a bunch of folks would come together to demand freedom for a plant.
My question was whether people would be prosecuted for consuming cannabis. Here, there was no pause. “Yes they would, drug use is not tolerated,” was his response. It was clear where the boundary was. Cannabis use has recently been clamped down on by authorities in Antwerp, with people being arrested for just one joint, despite small amounts for personal consumption being decriminalised since 2003. I wished him a good day and passed the barrier to get closer to the stage, which was now pumping out some exceedingly nice dub music. Our exchange left me wondering how best to consume some of the organic kush that I had in my pocket.
Inside the arena there were no police, though they circled the event like sharks round a wrecked passenger ship in tropical waters. There were many cannabis leaves on display, but no visual display of consumption. You could smell it in the air, but there was no sign of anyone antagonising the police and the police were not dragging people away for the smoking of therapeutic herbs.
I settled in a seat, had a hit from my stealth pipe and took in the event, not understanding a word of what was going on. I was cold. I got up to walk around and snap some photos. By now, a local rock band where belting out some pretty solid tunes on a decent sound system. There was a fun party vibe to counter the chill in the air and ominous looking clouds above.
Bring Your Own
Most people were supping beers. They must have brought their own as none were being sold at the event. There wasn’t any sign of any dealers, an advantage of being a member of a cannabis social club (as many of the crowd were) is that you have plenty of your own good quality marijuana, so there is no need for a baggie bought off the street. I fancied a beer, but it felt wrong. I fought the urge and bought a cannabis branded mango energy drink from one of the stalls. It contained hemp seed extract, but sadly, no THC.
I don’t normally partake in this kind of beverage, and not long into it I started to shiver involuntarily, not knowing if it was the drink, the cold or a little of both. Now a Flemish hip-hop band was on the stage and the tracks where funky enough to bob around to, which warmed me up a little. I have no idea what they were rapping about, but they were good. I caught sight of Mich Degens from Mambo Social Club and had a chat. He told me that Belgium is one of the most tolerant countries when it comes to cannabis, but you must keep it subtle or else you could be pulled up by the law. Given his recent court cases, I trust he knows what he’s talking about.
We’re All Working for the Plant
It started to rain. It got colder. It started to rain more. I stood under the eave of one of the stalls, as did many others. The rain stopped and I spotted Derrick Bergman, chairman and spokesperson for VOC (which, when un-acronymed and translated to English, stands for the Alliance for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibition) an ardent cannabis campaigner who was busy photographing the day’s events. We said hi and I thanked him for some kind tweets he’d made in my direction recently. “It’s natural, we’re all working for the plant,” he said and made off to do his thing whilst I reflected on his words.
After one last lap of the square, I made my way home to escape the cold, leaving the steadily growing, more suitably dressed, crowd to enjoy the party.
Cannabis Liberation Day Amsterdam
Cannabis Liberation Day Antwerp is how I imagine Hempfest was back in the day. Just like Hempfest, I’m sure it will grow year after year. It’s a precursor to another Cannabis Liberation Day, hosted in Amsterdam, on the 12th of June. Now that High Times magazine has abandoned Amsterdam as a destination for it’s Cannabis Cup, Cannabis Liberation Day is the biggest cannabis event in Amsterdam and I’m looking forward to it. There’s a good chance it will be warmer. Cannabis is not free in Europe, just yet, but thanks to a growing number of committed activists it could be one day.