2005 was a memorable year for me. I stopped smoking in March. I was a postal worker by June. And in between I was the election agent for Rocky van de Benderskum of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance (LCA).
Whitstable folk will recognise Rocky as that bald-headed, skeletal bloke with tattoos on his face and a ring through his nose. The bald-headedness comes from the fact that he has Acute Myeloid Leukaemia and has had to undergo chemotherapy. He walks with sticks due to the fact that the cartilage between his bones has been destroyed by the same therapy, and he is very often in severe pain. He also has osteopenia, hyperthyroidism and fungal pneumonia from all the chemo, radioactive stuff and genetically modified hormones they pumped into him as part of his cure. But, despite some occasional dark episodes, he is remarkably up-beat most of the time. This might have something to do with the self-administered treatment he uses to combat the symptomatic effects of his illness.
I first met him in early 2005 as I was sitting at the tables outside the Cherry Tree pub in Canterbury. Rocky was walking past. He obviously already knew me, probably from my column in the Guardian, as he called out to me by name. “Is that CJ Stone?” he said.
“It is,” I answered. “Who wants to know?”
He told me his name and after a brief conversation said that he was standing for election as the LCA candidate in the next election. I was excited by this. “Can I be your agent?” I asked. He didn’t even know he needed one. But how could either of us resist? It was a political relationship made in heaven.
The little private joke here is that actually Rocky is an anarchist who doesn’t believe in our political system. Being an election candidate in a system he didn’t believe in appealed to his sense of mischief.
I, on the other hand, have a long-standing association with the Labour Party (albeit I’m a secret anarchist too). On the subject of cannabis the Labour Party were/are as backward as any other.
It was a Labour Government that had reclassified cannabis as a class C drug (meaning reduced penalties for possession) in 2001. However on election night 2005 Ed Balls had said that this was a mistake comparable to the Iraq War. It was returned to class B status in 2009, by the Brown government, despite the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
I have to say I was not then, and am not to this day, a cannabis user. I had been in my early adulthood, back in the 70s, but it never really suited me as an intoxicant. I’m self-conscious at the best of times. Cannabis exaggerated this quality in me to an almost crippling degree. However it had always seemed to me to be a philosophical and political absurdity that this plant, this herb (because that is what is is really: a herb, not a drug) should be defined in the same terms as heroin and cocaine. So it doesn’t suit me, but I’m not a killjoy. Other people swear by it. Why should we be using the crude apparatus of the criminal law to police other people’s recreational habits?
Is it dangerous? Yes, maybe, in certain very restricted circumstances. There’s some evidence that the stronger strains can have a deleterious effect on the developing brains of teenage boys. All the more reason to make it legal then. How else can you regulate something than by bringing it within the parameters of the Law? Alcohol too is a dangerous drug. We deal with that by restricting its sale to people over the age of 18. By making cannabis illegal we pass the trade on to the gangsters and the criminals, who have no such inhibitions, and who are also selling other, much more, dangerous drugs, which the cannabis user is bound to come into contact with. Is cannabis a gateway drug, as its opponents often assert? Yes it is. But only because it is an illegal drug, which brings it cheek by jowl with the other illegal substances in the dealer’s private warehouse.
So we take a substance that is abundant in nature and as easy to grow as parsley and we boost its value a thousandfold by making it illegal, thus encouraging its trade as a black market product. We turn a peaceful plant into a source of violence, as racketeers and mobsters go to war with each other, and with law enforcement agencies, in order to maintain their profits. Prohibition of alcohol boosted the Mafia as a criminal force. Prohibition of cannabis, and other drugs, continues that process.
Also, and more importantly to me, hemp is a significant industrial crop. It is profoundly useful: a source of fibre for clothes, for paper, for rope, for biofuel, for biodegradable plastics, for food and for animal feed. It is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. It can grow up to the size of a small tree in the space of a year, thus making it ideal as the first step in reforestation. It can be used to stabilise the soil in mountainous regions, thus mitigating against the danger of slump and soil erosion.
It has a recorded history of medical use going back over 2,000 years… and an unrecorded use perhaps going back to the dawn of mankind. It is an ideal pain killer, causing much less cognitive impairment than the opiates, and – unlike them – non-addictive. It can help to stimulate the appetite, and is itself a nutritious food source.
So I had good reason to want to support Rocky in his endeavours. Of course we knew we didn’t stand a chance of actually getting in. The LCA were a single issue party and didn’t really have much to say on any other subject. And that was the point. By standing for election in Canterbury, Rocky and I were bringing the issue into public consciousness. We were stimulating debate.
Rocky had been a merchant seaman, amongst many other things, before he became our candidate. It was in a night club in Quebec in 1974 that he first tried the drug. It changed his life.
He’s a devotee. He calls himself a “Cantheist”, which is like a Pantheist but with cannabis incorporated into the name. He first got into it because of research he was doing into the history of the plant, giving birth to his belief that homo sapiens co-evolved with cannabis. The reason he thinks this is that human beings, like every other vertebrate on the planet, have an endocannabinoid system. This fact was finally proven many years ago. It suggests that not only is cannabis a pleasant recreational drug, but that it has incorporated itself into our physiology. In other words, it is not merely recreational: it is part of our very being. That’s why, when you take it, it’s like a switch going off in your head.
He trained and then worked as a tree surgeon and landscape gardener, but had his vehicle, with all his tools in it, stolen one night, which put him out of business. It was after this that he took up the squatting lifestyle, eventually ending up living in a bender in Blean Woods for over a decade. Hence his name: “van de Benderskum”.
The name change – the surname that is: he was always Rocky – goes back to 1995 or thereabouts, and is a tribute to his time in the woods. It was done by change of name deed and is his legal name. He won’t say what his birth name was because, as he says, “it isn’t who I am any more.”
I think it was this, more than anything else – more even than the issue itself – that made me want to support Rocky. He had lived a life. How many election candidates do you know who have lived in a bender* in the woods?
He would have made a brilliant MP.
The election campaign was memorable for a number of reasons, not least because trying to organise cannabis users to do anything as focussed as a political campaign was like trying to herd cats. That’s a cliché, of course, but very precise under these circumstances.
We had a flyer. We were going to distribute it along the High Street in Canterbury. The plan was to give out the flyer to as many people as possible, while saying a few words to each on what our aims and purposes were. But anyone who knows cannabis users will know how loquacious they can be. Instead of sweeping down the High Street and spreading the word to a broad cross section of the population, each of our activists – who were all massively stoned by this time – would end up in long drawn out conversations with everyone they met. They may even have converted a few, who knows? But as a technique for winning elections it left a lot to be desired. I kept trying to hurry them along. They kept getting snared up. They were so stoned I think they’d forgotten where – or even who – they were half the time. They thought they were out for a nice chat with their mates, who were generally the only people they were giving the flyers out to anyway. Talk about preaching to the converted.
We also held a benefit party on a piece of land, owned by one of the local gypsy community, up on the Thanet Way. This wasn’t really a success either, it being too short notice for us to set it up properly, but it had one funny consequence. We had two large notices at the entrance facing in opposite directions. The notices said “Legalise Cannabis” in very large letters. People were honking their horns as they drove past. Later the police turned up, wondering what was going on.
“Legalise cannabis? You can’t say that,” they said.
“Yes we can,” we replied, ever so politely. “This is a political rally and that’s the name of our party.”
The officers laughed. “Just remember that cannabis isn’t actually legal yet,” they said, with a wink, by way of a warning; after which they left us alone to do whatever we liked.
We suffered a lot of prejudice. No one was taking us seriously. The Kentish Gazette excluded Rocky from the pre-election line up article, which included all the other candidates, and he had to go to the Press Complaints Commission to get redress. In fact he won his case, and the Gazette were forced to make an apology. Unfortunately the apology they drafted took up no more than two lines – considerably less than the two or three paragraphs the other candidates had had in the complete article – and didn’t even include an actual apology, just a few empty platitudes. Rocky told them to stuff it.
On one occasion there were hustings at St Mary Bredin Church in Canterbury, but they didn’t invite Rocky.
He rang them up and got the verger.
“Is this actually a hustings as the paper stated?” he asked.
“It is,” said the verger.
“You seem to have forgotten one of the candidates,” said Rocky.
“No we haven’t,” said the verger.
“Yes you have. The Legalise Cannabis Alliance candidate. Me. You forgot to invite me. Was that a mistake?”
“No, it wasn’t a mistake,” said the verger. “You are not invited.”
Rocky told him that in that case it was an illegal event as the law states that all candidates had to be invited.
The verger laughed and said he was wrong.
“Have you seen my flyer?” said Rocky. “Do you have one?”
The verger said he did and he was looking at it now.
Rocky told him in that case to go off and check the law, to which the verger replied that he wouldn’t be bothering to do that; at which point Rocky told him that he had half an hour to invite him, otherwise he would be seeking a County Court injunction to stop this illegal event. Up till this point the verger had sounded suitably smug. He wasn’t going to allow such a frivolous – and frankly immoral – candidate onto his precious hustings. Rocky could hear the attitude in his tone. But at the mention of a County Court injunction he was suddenly on his guard. Maybe he’d misread the situation. “I’ll need your phone number,” he muttered, nervously.
“It’s on the flyer,” said Rocky.
“Er, um, I threw it in the bin,” said the verger, stumbling. He had obviously lied earlier. So Rocky gave him his number and hung up.
Twenty minutes later the vicar phoned Rocky to invite him and apologised for the oversight. He also told him the verger was no longer willing to run the event because of this.
It was a strange affair in the middle of a Sunday evening church service with all the prayers and kneeling and stuff, with hymns and sermons and all the rest. There was a photo of all the other candidates above where they sat, but none for Rocky.
There was another hustings in Canterbury Christ Church University which was arranged to appear like Question Time at the BBC, with a chair person in the middle, and the candidates ranged either side. There were six candidates: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, Green and Ukip, aside from Rocky. The Conservative candidate, also the sitting MP at the time, was Julian Brazier, a lanky toff with a faux military bearing. He was very tall, and towered beside Rocky, who was sat on the seat next to him.
“Ha ha ha, Rocky thinks he’s going to be an MP,” he sneered under his breath, looking down his nose at our erstwhile candidate, with all the sense of superiority and entitlement that had been bred into him.
To which Rocky replied, laughing, “ha ha ha, Julian doesn’t think he’s a dick.”
There was one other funny moment. It was on the day of the election. I was in the fish market buying a piece of salmon for my tea. The woman behind the counter, who I sort of half knew, said jokingly, “oh, it’s election day isn’t it? I must go out and vote. I want to vote for legalising cannabis and twenty-four hours drinking.”
At which point I pointed out that there was, indeed, a legalise cannabis party on the register, and that I was the election agent.
“Spooky,” she said.
As candidate and agent Rocky and I were allowed into the count that evening. We spent most of the time outdoors, me drinking and Rocky smoking. John Nurden, then editor of the Whitstable Times, in which I had a column, caught us out there, looking suspicious.
“What are you two up to?” he asked. “You look like you are up to mischief.” And indeed we were.
Rocky got 326 votes in all. We didn’t change the world but then, as the old anarchist adage has it, “if voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.”
Cannabis is still classified as a schedule one substance, although it was legalised for medical purposes in 2018. This is despite the fact that scheduled substances are deemed to have no medicinal value. Meanwhile big businesses linked to members of the government are growing tonnes of the stuff under license, making millions from its scarcity, while the average cannabis grower remains a criminal.
Talk about corrupt. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
*“Bender”: a form of tent, made with hazel switch and tarpaulin, originating with the gypsy community.
Rocky van de Benderskum is an anarchist, a geriactivist and a scribbler. He lives in Whitstable. See https://www.benderskum.rocks/ for more information.
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