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Why Britain's Legal Cannabis Market Should Be Online-Only

The case for a heavily regulated, internet-based weed marketplace.
Max Daly
London, GB
Cedar Libani

This morning, drug think-tank VolteFace launched a report outlining its vision for a legalised cannabis market in Britain. "The Green Screen" proposes a solution to the stalemate over the future of cannabis policy – by making cannabis legal, but only available to buy online.

I called up the report's writer, Mike Power, a journalist and author specialising in the drug trade, to find out more.

VICE: So what's the big idea Mike?
Mike Power: We are proposing a digital-only cannabis market for the UK. Cannabis laws are changing worldwide – even the US, the country that instigated the ban on cannabis in the first place, is dismantling its laws. But the debate in the UK is moribund. We are stuck in a furrow of 1970s thinking, and we need to change the terms of the debate. Our digital solution does that.


Currently we have this nebulous idea that cannabis should be legalised, but no actual concept of how we would go about production, or distribution, or control and regulation of the eventual market. In "The Green Screen" I lay that out in as much detail as it is possible for me to do right now. The main idea is to ensure that anyone under 18 is barred, by technical design, from scoring weed, but anyone else who wants it can get it, delivered to their house the next day.

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Do you think an online-only market would tip conservative voters over the edge? 
I'm not trying to convince you or the readers of VICE that cannabis needs to be legalised. We all agree that it does. I'm trying to convince sceptical, conservative-minded people by taking their fears and concerns into account. A lot of people really don't like cannabis. But if this legal online marketplace were introduced tomorrow, nothing would change. People who did not participate in the market wouldn't see it in their high street, in their pubs or their supermarkets. Green Screen satisfies the nimbys and it satisfies the smokers. It lets everyone have their spliff and smoke it.

Cannabis law reform is about managing private, consenting adult behaviours. But it's also about protecting kids. We need to stop young people from being involved in gangs because of something as simple as cannabis. We don't need 15-year-olds carrying a knife to protect themselves over £20 bags of cannabis in their back pockets. Remove the criminality, transfer the demand to an online model, and kids would be safer.


You say in the report that "the best way to achieve this compromise is to formalise the dark web model". So would it be a bit like Silk Road?
It's interesting to see these markets as digital disruptors, as leading-edge entrepreneurs who are providing a service for the public. About a third of deals on sites such as Dream, Hansa and Alphabay are for cannabis. Why not simply formalise and legalise that model?

What's wrong with coffee shops and dispensaries on the street?
I've always felt intuitively that we shouldn't have a retail cannabis culture here. From the perspective of the non-cannabis using majority, such places would feel dangerous or threatening. When I went to Canada last month I couldn't believe the amount of stores everywhere – it was ridiculous – and it's not even fully legal there yet. When I mentioned the online-only idea to a group of senior police officers in Canada they smiled and told me they would love to have legalised cannabis without having to deal with "all the bullshit in the streets", by which they meant criminals and unlicensed growers trying to profit from the trade.

Photo: VICE

If I logged onto Britain's legal cannabis market, what would it look like?
It would look a bit like plain packaging for fags. No branding, no BOGOF deals or 4/20 sales, just the prices, the names and strengths of the plants and their effects. Controlling the aesthetics is easier to do online than with physical shops.


How would it work? Would it be one giant state-run cannabis store?
No. The government would not be selling the cannabis, just monitoring it. I propose a free but regulated market, a bit like off licenses, but online. All of the cannabis in our imagined scenario would have to be submitted to a government testing lab before it could be sold. There are about 220,000 licensed premises in UK, and the government manages that process pretty well, so why not build a similar system for cannabis?

Would high potency cannabis be allowed online?
Yes, cannabis markets have changed and some people like stronger products now. But we suggest that we use taxes to steer people to standard-strength products.

Could this system not work for high street stores?
How often would, say, 10,000 cannabis shops need to be visited, and monitored? Who is going to do that? How many hours of work and travel would it involve? All that monitoring would be removed by an online market. You can can check buyers' identity immediately through banking records. There would be no cash purchases, so the government would be taxing every penny.

Some might say the advantage of street stores is good old-fashioned face-to-face advice?
We don't need to do many things face-to-face nowadays, and we don't have to sell cannabis face-to-face. I spoke to a cannabis supplier with a dispensary in Las Vegas. He said the same thing, about personal patient care. I called him out on it. If someone really needs to get to sleep at night, do you really need to have a conversation with them? Or can you just go: "This one has a higher indica ratio and this will make you sleep."


"I'm not sure criminals would bother [capitalising on a legal weed market] – do they go into the supermarket today, stock up on bottles of whisky and sell it to children in the car park?"

How easily could children buy cannabis from a legal online shop? 
The best people to ask about that are online bookmakers like William Hill. How do they prevent people under the age of 16 or 18 from accessing their service? The answer is through credit referencing agencies and cross-checking ID with people's bank details and home addresses.

How would you stop criminals getting hooked into this market?
We recommend a quota on the amount of cannabis you could buy – say, 30 grams per month of herbal cannabis – so we can help people control their consumption and reduce the motivation for a secondary market. But I'm not sure the criminals would bother: do they go into the supermarket today, stock up on bottles of whisky and sell it to children in the car park?

Could we not just stick with the dark web? It's pretty safe compared to buying on the streets.
I want to put people who want to buy cannabis into a cannabis-only market. At the moment, on dark web markets they are three clicks away from buying crystal meth, crack and heroin. People are free to do what they want, but why not encourage safer behaviours?

Green Screen is hypothetical at the moment. When is legalisation likely to happen in UK?
Who knows, with Brexit and Trump and Le Pen? People aren't thinking straight right now. I'd like to think by the time I'm 60, in 14 years time, that it will be legalised. That we would have solved this problem. The two million people in the UK who smoke weed often argue that it's "just a plant". That does not eliminate the view of the majority, who still want cannabis banned, as they think – or have been told – that it's an evil drug. Both extremes are wrong, and it's in the spirit of pragmatic compromise that we have to move forward to get to a point where we change these ridiculous laws.


Cannabis is not safe, it is not deadly, it is not evil or good. It is a relatively safe, hugely enjoyable experience for millions of people, and even people who abuse it cause less harm to others than alcohol abusers. So it's time for change.

Thanks, Mike.


More on VICE:

A Hazy Day Out in the UK's Weed Smoking Capital

How Not to Treat Weed Dealers, According to Weed Dealers

People Talk About the Experience That Made Them Stop Smoking Weed