'The Government's Drugs Minister Must Step Down'
Because of a huge conflict of interest, she can no longer talk about cannabis – the most commonly used illegal drug in the UK.
Left: Uros Poteko / Alamy Stock Photo; Right: Victoria Atkins' official portrait
Spend enough time with people who Really Love Cannabis, and sooner or later you'll hear this old chestnut: weed isn't a drug, it's a plant (and consequently shouldn't be illegal like all those other "real drugs" – you can't ban a plant, after all).
Leaving aside the problems with that statement for a moment, it would appear the government's own drugs minister, Victoria Atkins, may be thinking along the same lines. It was revealed this past weekend that she's decided she can do the job of drugs minister without ever having to comment on anything to do with cannabis, or the government's policy towards it. Cannabis: the most commonly consumed illegal drug in the UK.
The reason that Atkins is stepping away from any of the weed-related responsibilities her job entails? Turns out she's not a recent kush convert, sadly, but rather that she has a huge conflict of interest in this area. Her husband, Paul Kenward, is the managing director of British Sugar, which just so happens to own the largest greenhouse in the UK – a greenhouse full of cannabis being grown legally for medical purposes, under licence from the Home Office. The same Home Office that refuses to acknowledge that cannabis has any medical purpose.
The government has known about this conflict of interest since well before Atkins was appointed to her role, but that didn’t prevent her being given the one job where having a close family link to the largest medical cannabis farm in the country would be a significant impediment.
So far, so ridiculous – but it gets worse. Had Atkins been given the drugs minister job at another point in time, she might have sailed through without anyone much noticing her silence. Recent months, however, have been some of the most tumultuous for medical cannabis the UK has ever seen.
February saw the attempted second reading of Paul Flynn MP's bill to reschedule cannabis to allow medical use, alongside a protest outside Parliament. And in March, the story of Alfie Dingley – a young boy with a severe and rare form of epilepsy, treatable only with medical cannabis – caught the nation's attention, as it transpired the Home Office had refused to consider granting Alfie's family a licence to import the medical cannabis he needed, announcing no solution could be found. Following public outcry, the Home Office announced a full U-turn, though it is still procrastinating on the issue, having not yet settled on a solution for providing Alfie's medicine, while he, and his family, continue to suffer.
The medical cannabis stories continue: figures released by the UN this year revealed the UK to be the biggest exporter of legal medical cannabis in the world, despite maintaining a prohibition on it domestically, while earlier this week the Royal College of Nursing voted to support legalisation of medical cannabis and pledged to lobby the government on the issue.
There is also more yet to come: next Tuesday, the highest profile conference on medical cannabis to ever take place in Europe, Cannabis Europa, is coming to London, with three British MPs speaking, including two Tories. The best and brightest from Europe's rapidly expanding legal cannabis industry – as well as regulators, academics and policymakers – will be descending on the capital to talk about the future of that industry, and the UK's potential role in it. And what comment will our drugs minister be able to offer to such a high profile event happening on her doorstep? Zip.
With Atkins unable to address the many medical cannabis issues that have arisen in recent months, this responsibility has fallen to Nick Hurd, the Policing and Fire Minister. Consequently, Nick spent his May Bank Holiday weekend visiting the families of desperately ill children and explaining why the Home Office won't let them have their medicine, rather than doing his actual job as Policing and Fire Minister and addressing the the spike in Bank Holiday violence.
The Windrush scandal proved the Home Office to be heartless. This latest shambles has shown it to also be headless. The dust has barely settled on Amber Rudd's resignation and the department is involved in a fresh scandal that can only be resolved if the drugs minister is also removed from her position.
At a time when medical cannabis is higher on the political agenda and more visible in the public consciousness than ever before, having a drugs minister who is unable to defend the government’s current policy, suggest a more enlightened approach or offer any other informed comment on cannabis is somewhere between laughable and utterly hopeless.
As it stands, Victoria Atkins cannot do her job properly. She must step aside to make way for a drugs minister who can actually engage with this evermore pressing issue.
Henry Fisher is a partner at cannabis industry experts Hanway Associates and a senior chemist at The Loop.