Medical weed was legalised in the UK in 2018, and it’s only risen in popularity over the years. At the beginning of April, BudMedWiki – an independent educational directory researching the emerging medical cannabis industry – said that their website data suggests that “1,000+ [people] a day right now are considering applying for a clinic”.
“There’s around 25-30,000 patients in receipt of a private [cannabis] prescription,” says Carly Barton, the founder of Cancard – a registration service that acts as a mediator between patients and the police. You sign up to Cancard for an annual fee of £29 and, if you get busted with your weed, you can show the officers your membership card to confirm your legal cannabis status.
“We have had 3,224 police interventions that have been resolved positively, with patients keeping hold of their medicine,” she says, adding that they’ve also “had 404 family court issues resolved without anyone losing access to their children and prevented eviction for almost 300 people who live in social housing”.
I recently acquired a medical cannabis prescription – 10g of Pink Kush and 10g of LA Confidential – to help with the inflammation, pain and trouble with sleeping associated with eczema, a skin condition that I’ve had since I was a kid. But I was also interested in what happens to legit cannabis users when their daily business leads them to a place, like a bar or a nightclub, where they might get searched. So can you actually bring your legal weed everywhere – or do you still have to use at home like a garden variety criminal?
Getting into a small club with medical weed
I’m not going to say which club this was because I don’t want to get the bouncer in trouble, for reasons that will soon become obvious. I asked if I could bring my cannabis in and before I could even say it was medicinal, he interrupted: “Just keep it in your pocket – don’t tell me about it. If you want to smoke it go round the corner.” Props to him, but still unhelpful for my experiment.
Getting into a bar with my weed prescription
I took the opportunity to explain my prescription to security as they searched my bag at G-A-Y Bar in Soho. “Legal weed?” the bouncer said, aghast. “In the UK?” Then his colleague spotted VICE photographer Yushy taking shots of the scene. They took exception to that. I was rejected. I asked if it was because of the weed and a bouncer said it was because we were “taking pictures”. Fair enough, although that didn’t help me much with this fact-finding mission either.
Result: Rejected, but not for weed.
Getting into fabric with a weed prescription
I was expecting problems at fabric, because the 1,500 capacity club is notoriously strict on drugs. Getting into the club has almost as many stages as obtaining medical weed: It starts with a ticket check, followed by an ID check, a sticker put over your phone camera lens, ID scan, metal detector scan and eventually the drug search. I was instructed to empty my pockets and place everything onto a table, as per the normal procedure. At this point, I explained that I had some medicinal cannabis alongside my ID and the relevant paperwork.
A medic was promptly summoned via radio and it was treated like a health issue rather than a security one. She inspected the prescription, the medical labels and my identification before saying that it was fine to enter – I’d check the medicine in with her (a coat check ticket was sellotaped to my weed container for this purpose) and it would be locked away in a separate medical area. If I needed to consume it during the evening, I would be taken to a separate area, away from the smoking area.
Everyone seemed to know what to do, so I asked if this had happened before. “It doesn’t happen often,” the medical staffer told me. “But it has happened occasionally, with people from places like America or Canada.” I was pretty impressed by fabric, to be honest; I was expecting trouble, but actually they knew about legal weed and they were willing to make adjustments to accommodate for it.
Interacting with the police with legal weed
I tried vaping some weed next to a police car, which goes against a stoner’s natural instinct – it was like willingly dipping your hand into a deep fat fryer. When an officer returned to his car, I asked him to recommend a good spot for me to vape weed.
“I’ve got a prescription,” I immediately clarified, causing the officer’s facial expression to melt from befuddled to neutral. There was a pause; I wasn’t sure what would happen next. But to my suprise, the officer was clued up on the law. “That’s fine,” he replied. “I would suggest to save yourself any hassle, it’s probably best to do that when you’re at home or somewhere less built-up.”
What happens if someone is visiting London and they can’t do it in their hotel and don’t know where to go? “Yeah, that is a bit of an issue,” he replied. “Someone [an officer] could stop and search you if they see you doing it on the street. You’d have to prove it’s medicinal.” Clearly more interested in tackling some actual crime rather than talking about people potentially possessing a plant without permission, the officer plodded off into the night.
“We used to have a lot of issues with people being arrested with their prescription and having their medicine confiscated,” Barton tells me on email. “Although this isn’t completely resolved, it’s happening less and less now with more officers understanding the current landscape for medicinal cannabis in the UK.” At the moment, no government or Home Office training has been given to officers about this – it’s the Cancard team who are going into police forces and providing this training.
Result: Surprisingly chill.
Getting into Printworks with medical cannabis
I wondered what would happen at a massive 6,000-person club like Printworks. I emailed ahead to ask what the deal was with bringing medicinal cannabis in. I was sure it would be a “no” because Printworks takes a” zero tolerance” approach, with sniffer dogs on the door. Plus, I’d read about Revenge, a club in Brighton, who said that Sussex Licencing Police had instructed them not to let medicinal cannabis users into the venue. (VICE contacted Sussex Licencing Police to ask about this, but they had yet to respond at the time of writing.)
Instead, I received a response from Printworks asking to see my prescription then a further response outlining their decision, which was identical to fabric’s one. “Usually, cannabis is not permitted into our venue, however, as this is for medical purposes this medical-grade vapouriser will be okay for you to bring on site,” it read. “We kindly ask for you to keep it on only yourself and when you need it, staff will escort you to the staff smoking area.”
The email continued: “Please also only bring the essential amount that you need for the night.” So: more reasonable adjustments for medical cannabis users, which was a surprise. I didn’t make it to a live gig or a festival, but Barton advises only using a medical inhaler (i.e. a vape), being mindful of others, showing paperwork and interacting positively and proactively with staff. Who knows – you might be surprised, just like I was.
I’m in a privileged position – I can afford to pay for private treatment. But an estimated 1.4 million medical cannabis patients in the UK are self-medicating using black market weed because they can’t afford legal weed. It’s a two-tier system: People who can afford it are no longer criminals and those who can’t pay risk prosecution.
Drug Science has created a medicinal cannabis registry, T21, by offering discounted private prescriptions for cannabis products if they can track your treatment progress. Private clinics offer discounts for people on certain types of benefits too, but it can still be prohibitively expensive for many – my prescription cost £95 for an initial consultation and £12 per gram of weed. Understandably, there have been calls to let patients grow their own weed.
Of course, my experiment would have probably gone differently if I was a person of colour – according to the government’s latest statistics, Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.
Clearly, there’s bigger issues here than whether those with a legal prescription can get into Printworks – but that just underlines my point. Right now, weed just serves to entrench preexisting inequalities in British society. It doesn’t have to be that way – especially when it’s already treated like any other medicine for a select few.