Is Britain Set for Its Very Own Cannabis Revolution?

By Steve Sampson | Nov 19 2013

Doug Fine giving a talk on cannabis law reform at London South Bank University. Oh my! (Photo by Jake Lewis)

The US war on cannabis is over and there's no turning back, says US cannabis author Doug Fine as he prepares to take the stage at South Bank University. Fine is in London for the one-night UK leg of his world tour, spreading news of the "green economic revolution" currently spreading through the US, which is seeing certain states decriminalising, taxing and profiting from the marijuana industry.
 
"My message is this," he says, smiling confidently, "if it can happen in the US, then it can happen here in the UK. There’s no stopping this train now."

That Fine is upbeat isn't particularly surprising. His book, Too High To Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, provided a blueprint for America's nascent medicinal cannabis industry. He chronicled events in Mendocino County, California, where Sheriff Tom Allman was one of the first law enforcers in the US to sanction regulated, organic, eco-friendly cannabis cultivation, and – in doing so – temporarily saved his state from bankruptcy.

But Fine also effectively called the market. Publishing his book as the US went to the polls in 2012, he predicted that the medicinal cannabis industry would blaze a trail through the US. Two years later, Fine’s economic "green revolution" is taking hold; the medicinal cannabis industry straddles around 20 US states and is tipped to be worth $2.34 billion (£1.45 billion) a year in 2014, exceeding the $10 billion (£6.3 billion) mark by 2018 as legalisation spreads.

A medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco (Photo via)

On stage, Fine tells his audience – comprised of academics, activists, students and journalists – about the potential of a "green rush" in the British Isles. "Look at what’s happened in Portugal," he says, referring to the country relaxing its laws on the possession of any drug for personal consumption at the turn of the millennium. 

Fine’s visit comes at a time when governments around the world are exploring new ways of approaching and exploiting cannabis. In early October, Uruguay's government announced that it would be the first country in the world to effectively nationalise the cannabis industry in a bid to undermine organised crime. In Europe last month, Romania legalised the use of cannabis derivatives for medicinal purposes and became the tenth country in Europe to recognise the legitimate medicinal uses of the drug, while Switzerland sanctioned possession for personal use.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the surprise appointment of Lib Dem MP Norman Baker – a former advocate of cannabis reform – to the role of Home Office drugs tsar further buoyed hopes among UK cannabis campaigners that the green rush was lapping at Britain's shores.   

But could Fine’s model for a regulated, organic, sustainable cannabis industry really take root in Britain?

Calls from both the House of Commons and Lords late last year to revisit Britain’s drug laws were promptly dismissed by one-time drug reformer, Prime Minister David Cameron. But they did spur Deputy PM Nick Clegg into ordering a review of international reform alternatives – likely looking at recent changes in America – which is expected to be published before Christmas.

The arguments for reform made by Fine can easily be applied to the UK. On a local level, it's a no-brainer, but something that a number of politicians have explored in the past, only to end up hitting a brick wall. In April of 2012, when Green Party councillor Ben Duncan called for cannabis cafes to be licensed in Brighton, he echoed the calls of Brighton & Hove MP Caroline Lucas – and the city’s chief superintendent, Graham Bartlett – for decriminalisation. But local powers don't stretch as far in the UK as they do in the States.

West Midlands police dismantling a cannabis factory in Birmingham (Photo via)

Nationally, the Institute for Social and Economic Research have claimed that Chancellor George Osborne could gain up to £1.25 billion a year in tax if weed was decriminalised. Others claim the figure would be much higher, with the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit estimating that its value could be as much as £6.7 billion per year based on current market prices. And according to drug reform trust the Beckley Foundation, Osborne would also benefit from cuts to the policing budget, suggesting that a shift to a regulated cannabis industry would save the Treasury between £200 to £300 million a year.

However, experience tells us that the financial benefits might be enough. Britain has a long history of politicians posturing about relaxing cannabis laws when at the fringes of the Westminster Village, before reneging on that stance once they're safely holed up in positions of power (Cameron is a perfect example).

And despite the liberalisation of laws in the US at state level, the US federal government’s commitment to both the War on Drugs and the international agreements that bind world powers to prohibition, means that Britain’s politicians couldn’t currently deliver Fine’s solution, even if they wanted to. Unless, of course, a UK prime minister is willing to unilaterally withdraw from its global obligations and risk upsetting our special relationship and trade agreements with the US.

Leading criminologist and cannabis expert Gary Potter, who is currently undertaking a review of cannabis policies in Holland, Spain and the US at South Bank University, explained how UK policymakers are boxed in when it comes to revisiting the laws around cannabis use and cultivation.

"Under current global drug regulations, Britain’s policymakers are bound over what they can do," he says. "The UK doesn’t have the enshrined constitutional rights seen in countries like Spain that could override its international commitments. UK policymakers are limited to changing the status of cannabis use, which could be decriminalised. But cultivation, like trafficking, must remain illegal."

As such, any reform would still leave supply in the hands of criminals, nipping all hopes of a "green economic revolution" in the bud.

A cannabis law reform protester in Edinburgh (Photo via)

However, many cannabis campaigners, including Fine, believe that the next step for the US will be to reset the international landscape for cannabis laws, ushering in an era of reform and allowing the British government to act independently. But the hurdles don't stop there; the biggest challenge in Britain is winning the stigma war, say UK reformers.

Rupert George is the head of communications for Release, an organisation that lobbies for drug laws to be based on public health issues rather than criminal justice. Last month, he told the Stop the Drug War campaign group: "There is far more entrenched 'reefer madness' [in the UK] than in the US, with the dominant issue being about psychosis. The idea of a regulated drug market for cannabis, or any other drug, is politically a long way away."

A decent example of the power of reefer madness – and the power of a parliament to sweep aside rational debate – occurred just one week before Fine landed in Britain. A private members' motion put forward by Luke "Ming" Flanagan in the Dáil – the Irish parliament – on the regulation of cannabis was defeated by 111 votes to eight

The first step towards winning the stigma war, say activists, is rebranding the cannabis industry. Campaign group NORMLUK is pragmatic about the challenge they face. Instrumental in bringing Fine to London, the group's current goal is resetting the image of the medicinal cannabis industry in Britain – giving it a coherent voice, objectives and gaining the support of the public and the trust of police and politicians.

A photo from NORML's website

"We hope that what's happening in the US will prompt the government to look at what's happening in other countries more seriously, and that Doug's story will inspire the public and law enforcement alike to look at this issue in a different light," says NORML spokesman Deej Sullivan. "For too long drug policy in this country has focused on punishing individuals for their drug use, which has led to a breakdown in the relationship between normal, law-abiding people and the people who are supposed to protect them – the police."

How the US moves forward will dictate change around the globe. However, a new generation of UK activists are looking to Europe's grass-roots cannabis social clubs for ways to tackle reform at home. The goal with the clubs is to bring together local networks of pro-weed activists who exploit legal loopholes that permit personal use and cultivation, thus allowing them to develop supply networks that operate within the law. Eventually, they hope that the European federation of clubs will form the foundation of a future industry.

Michel Degens, the founder of Belgium’s second cannabis social club, Mambo, described how the European cannabis community was rebranding itself. "We want to emulate what has happened in the US," he says. "And to do that we have to present ourselves as a mainstream business […] We want to pay tax and be regulated, and to do that we have to show that the industry had grown up and that we're not criminals. If we have to start small, so be it – this is only going to grow."

The federation has already forged links in the UK. With almost 40,000 Likes on Facebook, the London Cannabis Club (LCC) – established in 2011 – is gaining traction. Using social networking, LCC gathered around 10,000 cannabis activists to call for reform in Hyde Park at this April's 4/20 gathering, a number far beyond the expectations of organisers or police.

The LCC's April demonstration in Hyde Park

Operating under the name of Orson Boon, the administrator of the LCC is the new face of the UK cannabis community – a young, smartly dressed professional who believes potential public support for change is only beginning to be tapped. "What we're doing is making links between communities – that, for the past decade, have operated beneath the radar – to [establish] a public voice. We are not criminals. In every other aspect of my life I am a respected, law-abiding professional, and there are tens of thousands of people in a similar situation. If politicians can’t find a solution, then we will work to find one. We believe there is the public support for change."

Despite the challenges ahead in the UK, Fine remains optimistic that the "future for the medicinal cannabis industry in the UK is bright". Having predicted the US green rush in 2012, he says that America is now on a trajectory that cannot be reversed, and suggests that the global weariness with the war on cannabis will eventually see the industry accepted around the world.

But for UK cannabis activists, the reality is that the watershed moment is unlikely to come until the US decides to end its war on cannabis at an international level. And whatever's proposed in Nick Clegg's festive drugs review, the UK's war on cannabis isn't going to be over by Christmas. 

Steve Sampson is the co-author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked On Drugs. See our Narcomania archive here and follow Steve on Twitter: @Narcomania

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