In the UK, legal weed remains something of a pipe-dream. Despite cross-party support for medicinal marijuana licenses, and the fact Britain is the world's largest producer and exporter of cannabis for medical and scientific use, the government maintains the fiction that weed "has no medical use" – and has made it clear there are no plans to downgrade it from a Class B drug.
So how is it that an army of Swiss entrepreneurs are currently growing, marketing and shipping kilograms of high quality cannabis across European borders to eager customers in the UK and beyond, all – they say – completely legally?
Well: European law states that if a dried hemp product contains less than 0.2 percent THC (the stuff that gets you high) it is deemed legal produce. While your local dealer's weed normally ranges from anywhere between 10 to 25 percent THC, accompanied by 0.1 to 1 percent of CBD (the stuff with the medical benefits), these Swiss flowers are effectively the opposite – an almost irrelevant amount of THC, combined with over 10 percent CBD. The result is various strains of cannabis that may provide some of the therapeutic and medical benefits of CBD without actually getting you high.
Of course, European law is one thing; British law is another. According to the drug law agency Release, import cannabis containing any THC – "even if it's less than 0.5 percent" – and you risk being prosecuted, as doing so is illegal under UK law. CBD products containing zero THC can be legally imported to the UK, but if you advertise them as having medicinal properties they will need to be licensed by the MHRA.
So: not exactly legal in the UK.
Mind you, I discovered this detail after making my order, as it's not declared by any of the over 200 Italian and Swiss companies willing to sell me the CBD-heavy cannabis (as a non-medicinal product). It also didn't stop a package from landing safely in my postbox.
The sale of hemp across borders is nothing new; these kinds of products have been available from a number of online head shops and Amazon retailers for a long time. However, they are – by and large – badly grown, pre-ground and full of seeds, stems and leaves. Horrendous to smoke and containing trace amounts of any cannabinoid, they are essentially worthless.
These new varieties of Swiss hemp are far from worthless. The products have been created using the latest modern breeding and growing techniques, in an indoor set-up that looks exactly like its illegal counterpart.
One of the companies behind these strains is the Swiss outfit Cannical, whose Managing Director Sergio told me: "You can't really tell the difference between our product and the illegal street product – the buds are covered with many trichomes, and they are grown organically and lab tested." Sergio went on to tell me that Cannical has never had a problem with customs.
Shipping admin aside, how is the weed itself?
Lighting up a joint ordered from a company whose name I won't disclose, I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted somewhat like the weed I know and, as expected, it didn't get me high – which felt odd after I'd smoked a big spliff to myself. More than anything, it felt like it had cleared my head and relaxed my muscles – although it's worth noting that the effects are subjective user to user. As I don't have any of the medical problems which CBD may alleviate, I couldn't assess its use on that level – but recreationally, the closest thing I can compare it to is probably non-alcoholic beer.
"People buy it for all sorts of different reasons," said Leandro, Director at Greeners, a cannabis producer based in Thalwil, a town south of Zurich. "We have older customers, up to 70 years old, who buy it to give them relief from certain aliments. But at the same time we have many professionals who like to smoke a joint after a long day at work, but don’t want to get too stoned from high-THC weed."
Although these companies claim their product falls into a legal grey area, growing similar stuff in the UK is certainly illegal. In order to grow any form of the cannabis plant in the UK, you need the relevant licence.
I spoke to one British grower, Saif, who cultivates cannabis illegally, but only for his own personal medical use. The plants he grows contain very little THC, but high amounts of CBD, and he uses them to make concentrates and oils. He doesn’t sell anything – it's all grown and processed to treat his Crohn's disease. "Even if I wanted to sell this stuff, no one I know would buy it off me," he says. "Any mates I have who smoke weed do it to get stoned. They know I use it for medicine, but they also make the odd joke about my 'pointless weed'."
Saif grows simply because it is the cheapest and most natural way to treat his condition. "There is nothing more satisfying than growing and making my own medicine; that in itself is a therapeutic and rewarding process," he says.
I spoke to "Doctor Kush", the CEO of Dinafem, a well-known cannabis seed company which breeds the strain that Saif predominately grows, "DinaMed". Doctor Kush told me that this CBD breeding project began to help the parents of epileptic children around the world gain access to CBD, so they could grow their own medicine from seed.
"We've had great feedback to our new CBD range; growers want to buy more this year, from individual medical patients to commercial big growers in Switzerland and Colombia, also some in South Africa," he said. "All of them are happy and satisfied, so we are going to go much bigger this year.”
Doctor Kush also explained how his company, which traditionally breeds high THC strains, is now putting a lot more effort behind CBD: "Our lab is full time on CBD. We are breeding better strains for medical purposes, and even recreational purposes. We are making strains that are tastier to smoke, as well as being more effective."
Attitudes towards cannabis are changing rapidly, and in many areas of the UK the police are catching up quicker than policymakers; some forces have publicly declared that people smoking or growing small amounts of the plant isn't really of concern to them, while nationally there has been a huge decrease in weed-related convictions – a sign more forces are taking the same hands-off approach, albeit less publicly. That's a great thing – a move that will avoid the unnecessary criminalisation of cannabis users – but doesn't address the thousands of people who would benefit from a change of the law around medicinal cannabis.
Alfie Dingley is one of those people. The six-year-old suffers from a rare form of epilepsy that causes him to have up to 30 seizures a day. His family discovered that a CBD oil which contains THC could be used to treat his condition, bringing the number of seizures down to around one a month and drastically improving his quality of life – but they had to move to the Netherlands to buy it legally. Unfortunately, the family eventually had to move back to the UK, and have since been petitioning the government to allow Alfie access to the oil here.
In March, the Home Office said it would consider allowing Alfie to take part in a medical cannabis trial that would grant him access to the medication – but this came only after significant public pressure, and nothing has yet been guaranteed. Alfie is just one of many being denied access to medication that has been proven to work.
The high-CBD weed I ordered was fun to try, and kudos to its producers for finding a loophole that allows them to sell it legally – under European law, at least. However, in the UK, it is yet another reminder of how regressive the British government's approach is to cannabis. Not only are they purposefully ignoring evidence from countries all over the world, but in doing so are actively harming the people who call the UK home.
DISCLAIMER: We do not advise you to buy low-THC cannabis online and have it shipped to the UK. Doing so is illegal and you could be prosecuted.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.