Is Britain Set for Its Very Own Cannabis Revolution?
While the US appears to be slowly moving toward legalizing marijuana entirely, the UK weed industry is lagging behind its Yank counterpart. Is the "green rush" going to reach the British Isles anytime soon?
Doug Fine giving a talk on cannabis law reform at London South Bank University. Photo by Jake Lewis
The US war on cannabis is over and there's no turning back, according to author Doug Fine. Doug took the stage at London South Bank University last week as part of a world tour devoting to spreading news of the "green economic revolution" currently underway in the US, where a legal—and potentially highly profitable—weed industry is sprouting up thanks to some states decriminalizing marijuana.
"My message is this: if it can happen in the US, then it can happen here in the UK," a relaxed Doug told his audience of academics, activists, students, and journalists. "There’s no stopping this train now."
That Fine is upbeat isn't particularly surprising. His most recent book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, provided a blueprint for America's nascent medicinal cannabis industry. Published in 2012, it took a look at Mendocino County, California, where Sheriff Tom Allman bucked longstanding trends in American law enforcement and essentially sanctioned regulated, organic, eco-friendly cannabis cultivation. (The Feds later put a stop to Allman's innovations, and earlier this year the California sheriff came out against Colorado's legalization of weed.)
Fine effectively predicted the future of the pot industry before any state allowed anyone to sell weed without calling it "medical marijuana." Today, cannabis is pretty much as legal as tobacco in Washington and Colorado, and the market for weed is one of the fastest-growing areas of the economy—according to some estimates, it'll be worth $2.34 billion a year by 2014 and top the $10 billion mark by 2018 as legalization spreads.
A medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. Photo via
In London, however, Doug was more focused on the potential for a "green rush" in the British Isles. "Look at what’s happened in Portugal," he said, referring to the country's relaxation of drug laws that made the possession of any drug for personal consumption a misdemeanor at worst.
Few governments would accept that heroin addicts aren't criminals, as Portugal has, but many nations are exploring new ways of approaching and exploiting cannabis. In October, Uruguay announced that it would be the first country in the world to effectively nationalize the cannabis industry in a bid to undermine organized crime. That same month, Romania legalized the use of cannabis derivatives for medicinal purposes and became the tenth country in Europe to recognize the legitimate medicinal uses of the drug, while Switzerland made possessing ten grams of pot or less a minor misdemeanor.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the surprise appointment of Liberal Democrat Norman Baker—a former advocate of cannabis reform—to the role of Home Office drug tzar further buoyed hopes among UK cannabis campaigners that the green rush was lapping at Britain's shores.
But could Fine’s model for a regulated, organic, sustainable cannabis industry really take root in Britain?
Calls from both the House of Commons and Lords late last year to revisit Britain’s drug laws were promptly dismissed by Prime Minister David Cameron, who once made noises indicating he'd be open to reform. But Parliament did spur Deputy PM Nick Clegg into ordering a review of international reform alternatives that will likely look toward Washington and Colorado's recent reforms.
The arguments made by Doug about marijuana in the US can easily be applied to the UK. On a local level, legalization, or at least decriminalization, is a no-brainer, but politicians who have explored those options in the past have ended up hitting a brick wall. In April of 2012, when Green Party politicians called for cannabis cafes to be licensed in Brighton, the city’s head cop, Graham Bartlett, agreed that decriminalization was the way to go. But the people in charge of the country's marijuana policy have turned up their collective nose at such suggestions.
West Midlands police dismantling a cannabis factory in Birmingham. Photo via
A study published in September by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, which is connected to the University of Essex, claimed that the country could earn up to £1.25 billion ($2 billion) a year in tax revenue if weed was decriminalized. Others claim the figure would be much larger, with the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit estimating that it could be as high as £6.7 billion ($10.79 billion) per year based on current market prices. According to the pro-legalization Beckley Foundation, the UK would also benefit from cuts to the law enforcement budget—a shift to a regulated cannabis industry could save the government between £200 to £300 million ($321 to $483 million) a year.
The problem is that Britain has a long history of politicians, including Cameron, posturing about relaxing cannabis laws when at the fringes of power before reneging on that stance once they're sitting at the head of the table. (For an across-the-pond example of this, see Obama, Barack.)
And despite the liberalization of laws in the US at state level, the US federal government’s commitment to both the war on drugs and the international agreements that bind world powers to prohibition means that Britain’s politicians couldn’t currently deliver Doug Fine's dream world even if they wanted to. Unless, of course, a UK prime minister was willing to unilaterally withdraw from the country's global obligations and risk upsetting our special relationship and trade agreements with the US.
Leading criminologist and cannabis expert Gary Potter, who is currently undertaking a review of cannabis policies in Holland, Spain, and the US at South Bank University, explained how UK policymakers are boxed in when it comes to revisiting the laws on cannabis use and cultivation.
"Under current global drug regulations, Britain’s policymakers are bound over what they can do," he told me. "The UK doesn’t have the enshrined constitutional rights seen in countries like Spain that could override its international commitments. UK policymakers are limited to changing the status of cannabis use, which could be decriminalized. But cultivation, like trafficking, must remain illegal."
As such, any reform would still leave the production of weed in the hands of criminals, nipping all hopes of a "green economic revolution" in the bud.
A cannabis law reform protester in Edinburgh. Photo via
However, many cannabis campaigners, including Doug, believe that the next step for the US will be to reset the international landscape for cannabis laws, ushering in an era of reform and allowing the British government to act independently. But the hurdles don't stop there; according the UK reform advocates, the biggest challenge in Britain is winning the war against the stigma of drugs.
Rupert George is the head of communications for Release, an organization that lobbies for drug laws to be based around public health issues rather than the criminal justice system. "There is far more entrenched 'reefer madness' [in the UK] than in the US, with the dominant issue being about psychosis," he told StoptheDrugWar.org last month. "The idea of a regulated drug market for cannabis, or any other drug, is politically a long way away."
The first step towards winning the stigma war, say activists, is rebranding the cannabis industry. NORML UK (an offshoot of the US-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) is pragmatic about the challenges they face. NORML UK was instrumental in bringing Doug Fine to London, and the group's current goal is to reset the image of the medicinal cannabis industry in Britain—giving it a coherent voice, objectives, and gaining the support of the public and the trust of police and politicians.
A photo from NORML's website.
"We hope that what's happening in the US will prompt the government to look at what's happening in other countries more seriously, and that Doug's story will inspire the public and law enforcement alike to look at this issue in a different light," said NORML UK spokesman Deej Sullivan. "For too long drug policy in this country has focused on punishing individuals for their drug use, which has led to a breakdown in the relationship between normal, law-abiding people and the people who are supposed to protect them—the police."
How the US moves forward will dictate change around the globe. However, a new generation of UK activists are looking to Europe's grassroots (har har) cannabis social clubs for ways to tackle reform at home. The goal is to bring together local networks of pro-legalization activists and helping them exploit legal loopholes that permit personal use and cultivation, thus allowing them to develop supply networks that operate within the law. Eventually, they hope that the European federation of clubs will form the foundation of a future industry.
Michel Degens, the founder of Mambo, a Belgian cannabis social club, told me the European cannabis community was rebranding itself. "We want to emulate what has happened in the US," he said. "And to do that we have to present ourselves as a mainstream business… We want to pay taxes and be regulated, and to do that we have to show that the industry had grown up and that we're not criminals. If we have to start small, so be it—this is only going to grow."
The federation has already forged links in the UK. With almost 40,000 Likes on Facebook, the London Cannabis Club (LCC)—established in 2011—is gaining traction. On April 20, the traditional pothead day of celebration, the LCC gathered around 10,000 cannabis fans together to call for reform in Hyde Park, a number far beyond the expectations of organizers or police.
The LCC's April demonstration in Hyde Park.
A guy who goes by the nom de plume of Orson Boon is the administrator of the LCC and the new face of the UK cannabis community—a young, smartly dressed professional who believes potential public support for change is only beginning to be tapped. "What we're doing is making links between communities, that, for the past decade, have operated beneath the radar," he said. "We are not criminals. In every other aspect of my life I am a respected, law-abiding professional, and there are tens of thousands of people in similar situations. If politicians can’t find a solution, then we will work to find one. We believe there is public support for change."
Despite the challenges, Doug Fine remains optimistic that the "future for the medicinal cannabis industry in the UK is bright." Having predicted the US green rush in 2012, he now claims that America is on a trajectory that cannot be reversed, and suggests that the global weariness with the war on weed will eventually see the industry accepted around the world.
But for UK cannabis activists, the reality is that the watershed moment is unlikely to come until the US decides to end its war on cannabis at an international level. And whatever's proposed in Nick Clegg's review of drug policy—which is supposed to come out before the holidays—the UK's war on cannabis isn't going to be over by Christmas.
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