In a little over two weeks, the House of Commons will hold a second reading for a proposed bill which could legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes. But why stop there? On the day Canada legalises it for recreational use, we ask: why not Britain too?
Alfie Dingley is a six year-old boy from Kenilworth in Warwickshire who has a rare form of epilepsy which can cause him to suffer up to 150 seizures each month. In order to treat his condition, his family took him to the Netherlands where they were able to give him a cannabis-based treatment which reduced the severity to one seizure per month. However, now that the family have returned home to Britain it would be illegal for them to continue giving Alfie the cannabis-based medicine which had such a miraculous effect on him.
In the wake of his case, as well as a similar case involving 12 year-old Billy Caldwell, there are now widespread calls to legalise medical marijuana in Britain. Former Conservative leader William Hague – not exactly a well-known stoner, more of a 14 pints of real ale man – went one step further, calling for cannabis to be completely legalised. Unfortunately, Theresa May’s government showed characteristic lousy judgement to quickly shoot down the suggestion. They’re way behind the times: marijuana for recreational use is now legal in Canada and across much of the USA, and hundreds of thousands of people are already enjoying the benefits. Most notably, society in those locales has not collapsed.
Meanwhile, Britain is still dragging its heels when it comes even to giving it to sick children. When NME contacted the Home Office to ask why they’re still standing in the way of cannabis-based medicine, they gave this statement: “We recognise that people with chronic pain and debilitating illnesses are looking to alleviate their symptoms. However, it is important that medicines are thoroughly tested to ensure they meet rigorous standards before being placed on the market, so that doctors and patients are assured of their efficacy, quality and safety. Cannabis is listed as a schedule 1 drug as in its raw form it currently has no recognised medicinal or legitimate use in the UK beyond for potential research and is therefore subject to strict control restrictions. This means it cannot be practically prescribed, administered, or supplied to the public in the UK, and can only be used for research under a Home Office licence.”
“…in its raw form [cannabis] currently has no recognised medicinal or legitimate use in the UK…” – The Home Office
The claim that cannabis has “no recognised medicinal or legitimate use” is nonsense, and the Home Office must know this. It’s contradicted not only by Alfie’s own experiences but by the experience of all those people already using cannabis around the world. In places like California, for example, where marijuana is now legal for both medicinal and recreational use, the situation for Alfie’s family would be very different.
On Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, in the east of Los Angeles, there’s a shop with a chalkboard outside that reads simply: ‘Got drama? Replace it with marijuana’. Step inside and there’s a guy waiting behind a small desk who’ll check your ID to make sure you’re over 21. Then he’ll let you inside the next chamber, and a whole world of weed products will await you inside. The shop is called Medicine of the Angels, or MOTA for short, and you can buy all manner of marijuana products here. They have sativa and indica flower, pre-rolled joints, THC vape pens, dosed gummy bears and medicinal, pain-relieving CBD products. You make your choices, you pay your money and then you skip out the door with a colourful ziplock bag under your arm. That’s how easy it is to buy cannabis in the state of California.
To understand how full recreational legalisation happened here I sat down with Luis Bobadilla, one of the founders of MOTA. Although all adults can now buy cannabis here, legalisation began for medicinal use, and many of MOTA’s customers continue to do so for health reasons just as Alfie’s family is attempting to do. “I think it’s particularly interesting that the people that really need it the most are the people who are initially most apprehensive, it’s senior citizens,” says Bobadilla. “Aging is almost a condition of inflammation, and there are few better anti-inflammatories with less side-effects than cannabis. We certainly get people who are doing this recreationally, but our most devoted patients are the elderly. They are people who use it and it makes a night and day difference to their ability to conduct their life.”
Bobadilla argues that legalising cannabis for medical purposes is something everyone should be able to agree on. “Politicians can’t stand in the way of sick children,” he says.
Clearly he’s never met anyone from the British Home Office.
So what’s stopping Britain from following suit? Peter Reynolds, the head of CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform, argues that British politicians are fearful of the tabloid reaction to legalisation – but points out that even the views of the British newspapers have evolved. Alfie’s and Billy’s cases have both recently appeared on national front pages.
“Politicians are terrified of being seen as ‘soft on drugs’ by the tabloids,” says Reynolds. “The trouble is, as in so many things, they’re actually way behind the times. The tabloid press has moved on. Whereas their sensationalism always used to be stories about: ‘Cannabis crazed axe murderer’, a lot of the sensationalism now is: ‘Woman with stage four cancer cured using illegal cannabis oil’. The tabloids are publishing those stories now probably more than they’re pushing the ‘Cannabis crazed axe murderer’ stories. MPs are just out of touch.”
“Politicians are terrified of being seen as ‘soft on drugs’ by the tabloids.The trouble is, they’re actually way behind the times” – Peter Reynolds, CLEAR Cannabis Law
It’s worth noting that legalisation needn’t necessarily be as fully commercialised as it is in California. Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at the campaign group Transform points out that other countries like Canada and Uruguay are also legalising cannabis use, but in very different ways. “There are different ways that reform can progress, and the commercialised Californian model is only one of them,” he says. “I think the Uruguayan model is probably too restrictive, but interestingly Canada is plotting a path somewhere down the centre. They’re going to have a retail model, but in most of the provinces the retailing will be a state monopoly. You will have commercial producers who can produce different products, but it will be packaged in non-branded packaging.”
“The UK is of the world’s biggest legal marijuana growers and exporters”
The British political reluctance to legalise cannabis is particularly galling and hypocritical given that as a country we’re one of the world’s biggest legal marijuana growers and exporters. In a particularly farcical twist, Conservative drugs minister Victoria Atkins recently had to recuse herself from speaking about cannabis issues – surely a pretty big part of her job, given that it’s the most widely consumed illegal drug in the country – because her husband Paul Kenward is the managing director of British Sugar, which operates the largest cannabis greenhouse in the UK, grown legally for medical purposes, under licence from the Home Office, but almost entirely exported abroad.
Last year at Glastonbury, I asked Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell whether a Labour government would look to legalise drugs like cannabis. He told me frankly that it’s not currently a priority for the party, saying: “To be honest, it’s about young people giving us their ideas about the way that we ought to develop their future. Drugs has not been a big issue that young people have come up with.”
Well, you heard the man. If you think that it’s crazy that people are still being arrested and criminalised for using cannabis, or that children like Alfie Dingley should be allowed to use the medicine that they know works for them, or that people in California get to enjoy a full retail experience while you’re phoning some sketchy number, then you need to let your local MPs know. Find your MP’s email address and send them a message telling them that when Labour MP Paul Flynn’s Private Member’s Bill entitled Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) is debated on July 6, you’d like them to throw their support behind it.
As the shelves in the shops of Californian cannabis dispensaries prove, there’s a whole world of medicines and products just waiting to transform people’s lives. At the moment, in Britain; the only option for most people who want to use cannabis is black market skunk, which leaves us with a situation equivalent to trying to discuss the finer points of cocktail-making when most people have only ever experienced illegal moonshine.
Over the next few weeks, we at NME are going to be talking to more activists, campaigners and politicians about how Britain can move towards legalising cannabis. Prohibition has failed, sick kids need our help and the economy could use the boost. It’s time things changed.