The UK Has a Brand-New Cannabis Political Party, and I Went to the Launch Party

The Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA) party is here, it has money, and it wants to free the weed.

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Feb 12 2015, 1:14pm

The CISTA logo

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

When you think of the smell of cannabis, as familiar to some London streets as sirens and the night bus, you don't really think of Tottenham Court Road. For all its alternative religion and dodgy electronics shops, TCR is still part of the culturally bankrupt tourist heart of London. But it's here, in a back alley behind the Burger King–Boots megacomplex, that CISTA, a new political party dedicated to the legalization of cannabis in the UK, is holding its launch event.

The party is in glass-half-full flow when I arrive. "Eighty people signed up on Eventbrite," one of their organizers tells me, "but we'd be happy with half of that." The venue, CrowdShed, is full of little pockets of men sipping Peronis, and, presumably, talking about weed. There are four women in the room, including a journalist from the Evening Standard. The mood of the gathering is like a free drinks event at a Silicon Roundabout startup, but with the pre-hipster millennials discussing Westminster policy rather than apps.

CISTA's logic is increasingly common: They want to legalize cannabis because they believe the War on Drugs has failed and that new strategies need to be employed. CISTA's draft manifesto declares that people "no longer wish to criminalize social and medicinal users of cannabis, fund organized crime, or divert police and criminal justice resources from more pressing local needs." With only 80-or-so days before the 2015 General Election, they're joining the race unfashionably late, but—with their ambitiously bourgeois launch event—they're definitely taking it seriously.

Paul Birch is both the brains and financial brawn behind CISTA. A tech start-up guru and brother of Bebo founder Michael Birch (it is said, in whispered tones, that he has "Bebo millions"), Birch is a rangier, middle-aged Zuckerberg. "I've been working on this since December," he tells me, when I corner him and his PR agent (who looks like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction) downstairs. It's a recurring theme: when I ask people how long they've been involved with CISTA, their answers range from "last week" to "Thursday." Tarik, who gave the final speech at the launch event, bundles onto stage, declaring that he didn't know he'd be giving a speech having only heard about CISTA a few days earlier.

CISTA founder Paul Birch. Photos by Jake Lewis

But all these men (and it's hard to ignore a gender imbalance that would make the UKIP chairman blush) share a common belief. "It's a simple argument, there is only really one side to the argument," says Birch, before delving into the wild world of metaphor, "When you've got that much of a one-way street it needs to change as quickly as possible.

"There is no drug policy related political party here in the UK. That's why we started it. If it was already there, we wouldn't need to." Birch even talks fondly of the Lib Dems and it would be hard to believe that he's a politician, in any sense of the word. He just seems like a peppy kid with a new toy, albeit the Action Man of Social Change. He started CISTA because he's a) an entrepreneur, and b) he wants to free the weed.

"We're looking for 100 candidates," Birch announced in his earlier speech to the congregation, "at the moment, we have about five."

The name of the party, CISTA, stands for Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol, which seems to set two of the nation's favorite drugs in direct opposition to each other. As the free booze flows, I ask Birch whether CISTA is anti-alcohol. "I used to have a few drinks," he says, "but the data is clear that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis." His PR guy tries to interject with the citation that heroin actually makes people more healthy if it's pure enough, but Birch looks uncomfortable, sinking into his seat like a toddler being warned off gummy bears. "I didn't know that," he says, and then steers conversation back to cannabis and CISTA's electoral plans.

"We're looking for 100 candidates," Birch announced in his earlier speech to the congregation, "at the moment, we have about five." One hundred candidates is a pretty optimistic target for any minor party, not to mention the 500 quid deposit you have to set down just to run (you don't get it back unless you get 5 percent of the vote and CISTA are only hoping for 1 percent). So who's going to shell out £50,000 [$77,000] to put up these candidates? "We're hoping to crowdfund," Birch tells me, but I can't help wondering about those mysterious "Bebo millions" I'd heard tell of. How much will he personally put up? "I'd be willing to put in about £100,000 [$154,000]."

Birch himself is planning to stand, although he hasn't decided where yet. He thinks it'll be Hackney South and Shoreditch, which, in the last election, saw three independents and a Communist League candidate in the field. Labour won it with a 14,288-vote lead over the Lib Dems in second. Who knows how the introduction of CISTA will shake up Shoreditch's cosmopolitan cocktail?

Reaching that fabled 100-seat target remains but a glint in Birch's eye, but his team has already started to amass an army of activists. CISTA's few already-committed candidates run a small gamut of collared-shirted respectability. There is nothing of the Kevin Smith stoner tradition here, just intelligent leftists who smell like a Denver Broncos jersey. In fact, Colorado is something of an inspiration for CISTA. When the Rocky mountain state legalized marijuana, back at the start of 2014, they saw a tangible economic and social boom. It was such an explosion that "Colorado cannabis" became the top Google result for the state.

Tarik Fontanelle

At the event, I had a chat with Tom Mullany, one of the few candidates who has committed to standing. He has a sort of cherubic Gary Barlow vibe and looks like he's come straight from work. "I got involved after giving an impassioned speech in a pub on drugs policy," he tells me, "and then, over brunch, they asked me to stand."

Mullany will be going up against Chuka Umunna in Streatham this May and I ask him whether this is a way of flirting with the Labour man about reforming the party's drug policy. "No, it's to challenge him." Mullany is obviously passionate about the issue and he's not alone. The room is a complete choir to CISTA's preacher, but the UK is reaching the point, along with the US, where reform to cannabis laws are a matter of when, not if. "No politicians will tell me they're against reform," Birch says, "I think we could realistically see a change of policy in the next parliament."

Paul Birch and (second left) his Harvey Keitel lookalike PR guy

Ed Miliband, one of the country's Prime Ministers in waiting, has already come out against that idea. "I haven't taken drugs," he said. "I'm not in favor of decriminalization, for example, of cannabis, because of my reading about it—and I have read about it." What Miliband has been reading is anyone's guess, but a YouGov poll commissioned by CISTA states that public perception of cannabis places its safety somewhere between the dangers of tobacco and the light-hearted frivolity of booze.

Legalization of cannabis is one of the complete no-brainers to most people (or most people who will make up the electorate in, say, 20 years, at least). But only the Lib Dems have committed to a Royal Commission on the issue, and, let's face it, if the Lib Dems get any real power in May, we've all lost. So reform on this issue continues to require the efforts of single-issue groups like CISTA, and mugging media clowns like Russell Brand, to force the arm of the men and women with real power: the lawmakers who have "never tried," "never experimented," and "never taken" the drugs in question.

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