What a Legal Weed Market Would Look Like in the UK

Speaking to experts and campaigners about what to expect from a country filled with regulated cannabis.
April 19, 2017, 11:00am
Photo: Jake Lewis

It's tough being a cannabis campaigner in the UK. Imagine repeatedly delivering peer-backed evidence to a government that has absolutely no interest in facts; it's got to get frustrating.

Sure, there have been a few small victories – a cross-party group of MPs campaigning for legal medical weed, the de facto decriminalisation of possession and small-scale cultivation in a number of police districts – but on a policy level, nothing looks set to change while the Tories remain in power, despite the convincing economic argument for legalisation and regulation.


But imagine a Britain in which factual information prevails over dogma; a Britain where cannabis is fully legalised. What would that look like? The truth is, no one really knows. Across the world, from Colorado to Uruguay, the perception and implementation of cannabis legalisation has looked very different; what will work in the UK may not be as simple as copy and pasting another country's approach. However, to get the best idea possible I spoke to experts who have studied cannabis and drug policy in the UK.

"The problem with imagining what the future looks like is that we have not yet started to implement any significant drug policy changes," said Danny Kushlick from drug policy organisation Transform. "Drug policy is heavily weaponised here; it's a weapon to be used against political opponents. Until they stop this 'tough on drugs' arms race, we won't see anything significant. It is anti-democratic and anti-progress."

That said, when politicians finally discuss cannabis policy rationally, and in detail, Transform has a good idea of what the results should look like. "We would like to see it much tighter than alcohol and tobacco – if not a state monopoly, then tight control of commercial outlets with no advertising and marketing," said Danny.

WATCH: The UK's Cannabis Policy Just Clearly Isn't Working for Anyone

Although this sounds strict, Danny insists it is the best way to go: "It is much easier to relax tight regulation that has been put in place as opposed to tightening lax regulation. This precautionary approach, to be safe rather than sorry to begin with, then relax as necessary."

Transform clearly state in their guide book that a "key aim" is to "meet demand in a way that does not encourage use", suggesting possible government ownership of distribution, like Uruguay's system. This is in order to prevent potential corporate cannabis companies from distorting policy in their favour, much like the tobacco and alcohol industry do today.


For instance, the system implemented in capitalist Colorado has allowed for a much more commercial version of cannabis legalisation than the one Danny envisions. Brian Vicente was one of the two lawyers who authored the revolutionary cannabis policies, law and regulatory structure there. I asked him what he thought a legal UK cannabis market would look like. "It's important to note that there is not a one-size fits all model," he said. "Different countries have approached it in very different fashions."

Mind you, he said, a similar approach to the one taken in Colorado could work here, too: "We modelled it very close to alcohol, and obviously the UK is a big consumer of alcohol, so it's not like you need to start from scratch, right?"

In Colorado the leading philosophy was simply named "Regulating Marijuana Like Alcohol". This meant applying the same framework they already utilise in the US for alcohol; specialised licensed outlets to sell the products, strict over 21 ID policy and product quality control, among other factors.

Another move Colorado made was to have no restrictions placed on cannabis products, allowing consumers access to the diverse range of cannabis strains, compounds and forms. This is good for recreational users who want to be able to select the potency, effects and consumption method of their weed, but even better for medical users, who often need this diversity to treat specific conditions and illnesses.


Although some politicians might argue that medical cannabis is already available in the UK, most medical users wouldn't be satisfied with the single option available. Sativex, which consists of isolated compounds (THC and CBD) from one strain of cannabis, and has only been effective in treating multiple sclerosis, is produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, the only company with a UK licence to grow cannabis for medical use.

Photo: Jake Lewis

"From a medical perspective, there have been a lot of studies that indicate there is something about the synergistic effect between the hundreds of chemicals in marijuana," said Brian. "And having worked a lot with AIDS and cancer patients, I have consistently heard for the need of access to the full marijuana flower for effective treatment."

Hattie Wells from think-tank the Beckley Foundation agrees: "Having access to only one strain in one form is crazy, considering how much more can be achieved with a range of products. This is definitely not what legalisation looks like," she said. "Even having only one company licensed to do all the cannabis growing and processing… we would never have that for anything else."

So what does legalisation look like for the Beckley Foundation? "We are currently putting together a report which involves cautious step by step recommendations leading towards full legalisation," said Hattie. "We aren't as cautious as Transform, but also not as openly commercial as Colorado currently."


So far, they have figured out the essential first step: decriminalisation.

"Alongside this we think cannabis should immediately be taken from schedule 1 to schedule 2 –this is essential so that doctors can prescribe it with ease and so that more research can take place with less obstacles," said Hattie. "Then the next step is to allow people to home grow for personal use."

These simple initial steps have been tried and tested elsewhere in the world, such as Portugal, with measured positive outcomes.

With this in mind, perhaps one advantage of holding back on cannabis policy reform is being able to gather evidence from places that have already taken the leap? Yes, but only to a small extent, said Danny Kushlick: "Every day that goes past we are allowing a market driven by high THC skunk to continue operating; we are contributing to the instability of parts of the world; contributing to crime in the UK; and we are allowing xenophobic policies to continue, and much more. There is nothing clever about any of that."

Beyond the guesses and recommendations of drug policy experts, there is little to indicate what legal cannabis in the UK will look like on the ground – and, as of yet, no conversations have occurred within either the Labour or Conservative party that are meaningful enough to allow for an educated prediction. In the UK we are still at the stage of trying to get substantial conversations around the issue to happen in Parliament. The Home Office response for comment on the issue was that there are "no plans to legalise the harmful drug" – which is apparently only harmful if it isn't produced by GW Pharmaceuticals.


In contrast to the many countries around the world undertaking cannabis policy reform, the UK continues to live in the past.


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