Have you ever thought about what the UK could be like if cannabis was fully legalized? I’ll bet you a Henry you have. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination, and cannabis users tend to be an imaginative lot. If you’ve visited the Netherlands, especially its coffeeshop epicentre of Amsterdam, it’s virtually impossible not to daydream about what our scepter’d isle could be like if its outdated, indefensible cannabis legislation changed.
In the first few months of this year, we’ve had the disclosures of (the man who hates to be called) Dodgy Dave about his offshore tax shelters, the 150,000 strong anti-austerity demonstration in London in April, and Nick Clegg coming clean about Theresa May’s attempts to delete any scientific data that doesn’t suit her preconceived ideas about drug policy. The reasons for change are mounting by the day. The UK’s drug policy is playing out against a backdrop on the world stage of the UNGASS Special Session on Drugs and the increasing number of places in the US where legalized recreational and/or medicinal use hasn’t caused the fall of civilization. The entire country of Canada will have legal weed in less than a year’s time, and let’s not forget Portugal quietly celebrating 15 years of the decriminalization of all drugs leading to nothing but positive effects.
True, in 1969 marijuana liberation pioneer John Sinclair thought it would all be over by 1972 and the US is still less than halfway there, but it must be admitted that the colonies are doing better than we are right now. Maybe one of the things that keeps us going is the belief that change for the better is just around the corner. So let us daydream together, dear reader, of the changes we might see if the UK decided to go all-out for legalization.
One of the most impactful changes could be the appearance of Bedrocan in pharmacies. Working with exclusive genetics from Sensi Seeds, this Dutch company has, to date, developed six different varieties of medicinal cannabis. The option would exist for doctors to prescribe them, and for patients to obtain them on the NHS. More information would be available for both doctors and patients (imagine a leaflet on cannabis alongside the standard ones on piles, flu jabs and diabetes that hang in waiting rooms!). Too often, medical professionals have to be informed about the benefits of cannabinoids by their patients. A new feature on the Sensi Seeds blog is devoted to providing scientific information to healthcare providers in order to help with this.
People who are already using cannabis to self-medicate are forced to obtain it through illegal means. Making cannabis available in chemist’s, or offering the option for people to safely and legally cultivate their own, would remove the stress and stigma of illegal activities. This alone would benefit countless medicinal users. Being able to secure a consistent product grown under controlled conditions and free from harmful contaminants eliminates the risk of worsening the user’s health. Being able to add cannabis use to a patient’s records, as with any other drug, means that potential negative interactions with other medication can be avoided.
Large-scale cannabis production for medicinal purposes could also replace, supplement, or possibly at least reduce the price of Sativex. According to both clinical trials and anecdotal evidence, Sativex, a cannabis-derived mouth spray with a roughly 1:1 THC to CBD ratio, effectively relieves moderate to severe muscle spasticity and other symptoms in MS sufferers. However, in 2014 the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommended to healthcare professionals that they “do not offer Sativex to treat spasticity in people with MS because it is not a cost-effective treatment.”
Although licenced for use throughout the UK, and being made from cannabis which is actually grown in England, Sativex is only available on prescription in Wales (not a country noted for being the most affluent in the UK!). In the US there have been cases of families relocating to states where medicinal cannabis is legal in order to obtain it for sick family members. It would be tragic if people with MS in the rest of the UK were forced to move to Wales in the same way, just to have relief from pain. It is possible to get Sativex directly from manufacturer GW Pharmaceuticals via the internet using a private prescription. However, the cost of this runs to around five hundred pounds a month; too much for most people to afford.
Finally, on the medicinal side, the risk factors of cannabis use could be lessened. For the majority of people these are minor to non-existent. But there are some for whom cannabis could cause health problems. Without the opportunity to speak with a well-informed GP who has access to their medical and family histories, they may be unaware of the risks, and inadvertently worsen their health instead of improving it.
Let us also consider the economic effects of a fully legalized and taxed cannabis industry. The market for medicinal and especially recreational cannabis is not one that needs to be created; in terms of supply and demand, the demand already exists. According to a survey by the Guardian newspaper carried out in 2014, an estimated 14 million people in the UK have used cannabis. Of the 13% of the population who would consider using any drug in future, 81% of those would use cannabis. Interestingly, among people who have never used drugs, 4% would consider using them in the future. If drugs were decriminalized, however, this figure jumps to 16%. The Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales on drug misuse for 2014/15 found that 6.7% of adults aged 16 to 59 had used cannabis in the previous year.
A survey by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit in 2011 (which was funded by political party for cannabis law reform CLEAR) estimated that the UK gets through more than 1020 tons of cannabis a year. If, as CLEAR proposes, cannabis was sold legally and taxed at a flat rate of £1 per gram with 20% VAT on all sales, this would generate around £2.4 billion in tax revenue per year. Given the above statistics on how many people would consider cannabis as a recreational drug if it was not illegal, it can be safely said that this is a conservative estimate. The view that revenue would not be that high because people would simply grow their own is somewhat naive, given that it continues to be perfectly legal to brew beer and wine at home, yet only a fraction of people actually do this and alcohol sales are barely scratched by it, let alone dented.
Of course, this direct revenue is only a small part of the positive effect that a proper recreational cannabis market could have. It’s impossible not to have noticed the amount of pubs closing across the nation. Between June 2014 and June 2015, they were going at a rate of 29 a week, according to the Campaign for Real Ale. Not as many people miss the access to alcohol – which after all, is freely available and cheaper in shops – as miss the sense of a hub of social connection, a place where communities meet and mingle. The introduction of coffeeshops could not only fill this void, but fill the empty pubs that have caused it. Rather than destroying communities, as cannabis is so often falsely accused of doing, it could actually revitalize them.
The claim that cannabis causes social isolation in its users results mostly from its illegal status. The ‘living room culture’ that this engenders grows from a fear of being caught if using one’s drug of choice in a public setting. It drastically reduces the potential for meeting new people. It breeds a sense of ‘us and them’ that creates barriers between users and non-users in a way that alcohol and tobacco, with their legal status, do not. Although they are far more harmful, they are not stigmatized in the same way. People who do not use them are unafraid to enter a bar or a tobacconist simply because the drugs are there, and largely unafraid of the people who use them (unless alcohol is being used to excess). This stigma is due to misinformation and propaganda. The legalization of cannabis would enable the reversal of this unfortunate trend. In the Netherlands, where coffeeshops have been commonplace for 40 years, this stigma has been almost completely erased. In any given group of friends, in any age range, it is absolutely normal that some will use cannabis and some will not, and this does not cause fractures in their social structure.
One of the ways in which this reversal of misapprehension could take shape is through unbiased information centres. The Cannabis College in Amsterdam is one such centre. Established in 1997 as a non-profit organization, it provides thousands of people every year – both tourists and locals alike – with free information about cannabis and hemp. By no means is every visitor a cannabis user, since interest in the manifold uses of both types of the plant is on the rise throughout the world. Being in Amsterdam grants the Cannabis College a unique position among drug information centres. There is a small but well-equipped cannabis garden in the basement where visitors can see for themselves how beautiful the plants are when in flower, the equipment needed for cultivation, and how to ensure the electricity is safely dealt with.
This last point is of great importance, since the most dangerous aspect of indoor cultivation is the use of electricity and water together. Obviously, the bigger the grow, the more power points are needed. Many growroom fires are caused by overloading the power supply. If they did not have to be kept so very secret, the option of bringing in a qualified electrician and ensuring that the proper safety regulations are followed would reduce the dangers of fire and electrocution enormously. A Cannabis College in Brighton, London, Leeds, Edinburg, Belfast or any other major city would be of enormous benefit to growers all over the Isles – especially with the same ability to have a growroom on the premises.
Not only would one or more Cannabis Colleges be a welcome addition to the cannabis-related venues here, but the logical next step would be a UK branch of the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum. The original has been a popular Amsterdam destination since 1985, and in 2012 another branch opened in Barcelona, a city becoming increasingly more tolerant of cannabis and making significant moves towards a form of legalization with the introduction of cannabis clubs.
The UK actually has a rich and diverse history of cannabis use. Think of the Rolling Stones in court in 1967, and the famous Times editorial titled “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” that took the surprising view – for a mainstream newspaper that embodies everything the 60s counterculture was rebelling against – that Jagger and Richards were being unfairly treated, to the discovery of pipes containing cannabis residue dating from Shakespeare’s time practically in the Bard’s back garden, to the unflagging determination of numerous activists who are today fighting for a long-overdue change in legislation that would enable the UK to finally embrace the many benefits of legal, regulated cannabis. More places in the UK celebrated April 20th this year than ever before.
So don’t give up. Keep campaigning, keep growing, keep spreading the information, stay true to your convictions. Maybe in a year’s time, we will be the country that the rest of the world is pointing to as a positive example. We are, after all, a green and pleasant land.
Originally published in Weed World Magazine 123