Jesse Willesee will be hoping to weed out the facts about medical marijuana at Town Hall today at 4.20pm spruiking #weedisnotacrime in the hope of moving on the debate about how cannabis can be used for good.
This Monday, the 20th of April, might be for many people a day like any other.
But, in the stoner world, it’s very significant – it marks the annual celebration of weed, the internationally recognised counterculture holiday known as “4/20”. It’s a day notorious for the encouragement of cannabis use, but this year Australian resident Jesse Willesee is taking it to a new level.
“Sydney stoners join me on 420!” writes Willesee on Instagram, “Meet me at Town Hall at 4.20 where I will be sparking up to protest against the criminalisation of marijuana.”
Many people’s first reaction to this will be to groan and roll their eyes. It’s easy to assume he’s just another entitled stoner looking for attention (or trouble). In actual fact, Willesee is a devoted champion of the legalisation of recreational cannabis. He has expounded on his motivation for protesting in the past, explaining that marijuana aids him personally with medical issues. The 27-year-old struggled to manage his ADD and ADHD symptoms with legal medications such as Ritalin for many years, and eventually came to realise the only treatment that worked for him was marijuana.
A conceptual artist, Willesee has sparked major controversy in the past over his work; including his viral “Marijuana is Not a Crime” protest piece, in which he was photographed smoking weed in front of various Sydney police stations. This time, Willesee invites bystanders to take photos of him while he lights up, and share them via social media using the hashtag #weedisnotacrime.
It’s a brave and unique way of starting a discussion about drug laws, but it’s important to note that race is a key factor in this protest. Willesee’s whiteness is what has allowed him to get away with smoking weed in public in the past. His social media is filled with pictures of himself and his friends using marijuana, and yet he has remained relatively unscathed by the Australian legal system.
There’s no denying the fact that people of colour are overrepresented in prison for minor drug crimes, and that they face much harsher penalties and sentences than white people for the same offences. Such racial biases are evident in legal systems the world over – according to Professor Alfred Blumstein of the University of Colorado, black people are “overrepresented in prison by 43 percent compared to arrest” for drug offences. In fact, black people, nationally, are around 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use as white people.
And for Willesee, systemic racism works to his advantage. He’s been able to announce his premeditated breaking of the law on Instagram and have it be considered a viral art piece, rather than grounds for arrest. Just two days ago, he posted a video of himself in a busy city street smoking weed, looking fairly nonchalant – no furtive, panicked glances over his shoulder; no fear of the police. I’m not saying that he should go to prison, but by not getting arrested, Willesee has unconsciously proven how racially biased the Australian government can be. Maybe the real conceptual art here is the image of a white man blatantly committing a crime while the government looks on in passive disapproval.
It’s a frustrating example of white privilege, but Willesee’s protest is fairly well-intentioned. “I am not asking anyone to bring weed or to join me smoking, just to join the protest. The police station is 100 metres away – leave your weed at home,” says Willesee on Instagram.
The only question that remains is this: What will come of this outrageous act? Will Jesse Willesee spark (no pun intended) some much-needed changes in the Australian legal system? Or will the police try to intervene and silence his protest? Only time will tell.
You can join the event on Facebook or keep up with it on 4/20 by following the tag #weedisnotacrime.