Last week, the current and future stakeholders of the UK cannabis industry travelled to Peterborough Arena to attend the second annual Product Earth Expo – a festival aimed at educating the public and sharing innovations of the cannabis and hemp industries. It's a popular event: 4,500 fans and supporters of the hemp, cannabis, and alternative cultures turned up to the event which included performances from the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Akala, and Mike Skinner. We went down to see what the event was all about – and to find out what type of exhibitors and speakers go to a cannabis industry event in a country where the drug is still illegal.
Walking into the main expo section, we were greeted with what looked like a mini cannabis Disneyland. From the big international consumer players like Barney's Farm, to the smaller UK-based start-ups, everything was shiny, intriguing, and related to weed. Seed companies, headshops, fashion brands, and activists all shared the same floor space.
The stalls that covered the space all pushed the boundaries in their own way. Josh Lewis, owner of clothing brand Tree Masons, told me how he wanted to create a fashion label for like-minded people. "I see my brand becoming almost like a uniform, for people who are interested in cannabis and nature. If you see someone wearing our brand, you know they might have a similar thought process to you."
He only started six months ago, but has already amassed a big online following. "Product Earth has given me the chance to get out there and show my brand to a different demographic. It's better than I ever thought it would be, it's really amazing that something like this is happening in the UK."
Product Earth only debuted in the UK last year, but this year's attendance was almost double, with organisers expecting it to double again next year.
Despite that fact that sparking up a massive bifta outside a cop shop wouldn't be wise, some forces can't really be bothered chasing smokers anymore. And it seems that the police had their priorities in order here. A lot of attendees seemed convinced that there were a couple of undercover cops snooping around, but the police didn't make a public appearance.
Cherry, the woman behind Cherry Haze Medibles, started selling her edibles through collectives and private clubs in the UK, mainly the Brighton Cannabis Club. She has since moved to Barcelona, where Spanish laws mean her business is no longer illegal. She produces medicated edibles for private clubs in a professional kitchen, and also writes about medical cannabis and cannabis edibles recipes.
"I remember there was this one [Brighton Cannabis Club] party where I put on a lovely market stall style set up with medicated sweets, brownies, cakes, you name it," she said. "And I remember this one elderly lady to who came down from Cornwall; it took her five hours to get to Brighton. She came in, bought a big bunch of my edibles, turned around and got back her in car and drove back. It just showed the demand out there for what we were doing."
Her vision for the UK is one where you could produce regulated and safe products, in a market which would contribute to the economy and be safer for consumers. "The dream is to have a dispensary in the UK. Safe access is a fundamental human right. I should have the right to start such a business. It's just ridiculous that I can't."
Despite this frustration, Cherry she sees things changing rapidly. "Product Earth is the first time people from our industry have been able to get together and talk properly in the UK. People are coming out of the shadows and showing their faces freely – only five years ago you would have never thought this would happen."
Kem from Osiris Labs was also working on cannabis products in the hope of a legal cannabis market materialising in the UK. "I don't see myself as doing anything wrong. I supply medical patients with what they need, by making medical grade oil using the [cannabis] plant."
He doesn't, however, attend rallies and sign petitions, and instead sees himself as an on-the-ground supplying activist. "I've sold medicine, and I've done things to help people – I've taught medical patients how to set up grows and aided them in doing so. And I'm always doing research to try to be at the cutting edge of techniques and cannabis products."
One stall with a constant crowd caught my eye: Lady Sativa Genetics. Originally from the UK, this award-winning breeding and growing collective are now based in Amsterdam. Eager growers and curious attendees were huddled around asking about the medical qualities, flavours, and aromas of the illegal plant that the legal seed eventually produces.
Jah Hoover, the breeder of the company, invited me out to dinner to talk about the work they do. "We are a seedbank and we sell seeds. That is completely legal in the UK – what you do with them is up to you – but we sell them as souvenirs of our cup-winning genetics," he told me.
"We don't do anything illegal," he continued. "I have my other family business, and I have my hobby. This is my hobby. I love being a part of the cannabis community and breeding new connoisseur genetics. We are putting UK on the map."
Breeding cannabis genetics involves growing and testing plants through a drawn out process – so how does one reach the final product without breaking the UK law? "We do grow, but that is all done in places where it is permitted, mainly Amsterdam."
"I'm not an activist, this is just my hobby that I love, and we are becoming successful with our passion," says Jah. He does, however, add that he thinks, "obviously the law needs to change".
The UK's cannabis industry is currently playing catch up with the rest of the world. The common theme that tainted every single conversation I had with people over the weekend was that they were sick of prohibition and being held back. But if things do change, grassroots movements and entrepeneurs such as these will have helped push the boundaries.
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