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Cannabis Culture and Hypocrisy in the U.K.

Cannabis Culture and Hypocrisy in the U.K.
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By James B. Hirsch

Reporting from the 2019 Product Earth Expo in the United Kingdom, James Hirsch delves into the intricacies of Cannabis culture in the United Kingdom. He speaks to activists working towards safe access and legalization and against the frustration induced by official hypocrisy.    

On the weekend of the 23rd-25th of August, we traveled to the U.K. to join our friends from the Emerald Cup at the Product Earth Expo. In spirit and focus, and perhaps air quality, too (which we did not measure), the three-day event, ostensibly centered around “hemp,” easily exceeded the 0.2% concentration of THC that is allowed for cannabis plant material to hold that legal designation in the U.K.  (In the U.S., “hemp,” can contain one-tenth of a percent more THC than in the U.K. before its legal status may change from uncertain to illegal.) PEX (as the event is known acronymically) featured three exhibition zones—Hemp, Hydro and Head. The initial impression—from the layout and the people manning the booths—was that it looked and felt a lot like a cannabis industry expo in the U.S.  

A tour of the exhibit floor reveals that PEX reflects the more nascent state of the “legal” industry in the U.K. relative to North America.  Most exhibitors could be classified as B2C and judging from the products being carried away by the Cs; many could be classified as home-growers or enthusiasts.  Seemingly predominant among the exhibiting Bs were purveyors of seeds, nutrients and other gardening aids. Also amply represented were head shops and sellers of CBD-infused products like chocolates, tinctures and balms. 

These included Ali-Bongo and Cannasseurs UK (both from Kent), and Otherside Cannabinoid Dispensary (whose shop we later visited on Portobello Road in London).  Bs in the B2B category included Snail Custom Rolling Papers (on the road from Slovenia), a maker of “Hempcrete,” and a local distributor of U.S.-based Rosin Tech solventless extraction equipment.  There were artists like Chloe Forfitt, author and illustrator of Elkie Meets the Hemp Fairy, and Sweet Sugarleaf, a creator of “cute cannabis culture,” with whimsical stickers and other items helpfully reminding us to “Wake and Bake” and “Puff, Puff, Pass.” (Though we adored Sugarleaf, we reminded them to mind regulations against appealing to kids if they ever intend that their work appear on cannabis products for sale in the U.S.)  

For an event that bills itself as “being the only Hemp and CBD event [in the U.K.] that highlights the complete business ecosystem of this amazing plant,” there was an unusual dearth (complete absence really) of accounting, legal and other business services providers among the 130+ exhibitors (the number advertised), or anyone dressed in a business suit.  Perhaps not surprising, as very little plant-touching cannabis commerce can be classified as legal in the U.K., and it was a bank-holiday weekend to boot. Live musical performances (trip-hop stalwart Morcheeba was top of the bill Saturday night), food trucks, a glass-blowing competition, and camping and “glamping” facilities all contributed to a festive, somewhat carnival-like atmosphere.  Abundant free parking in the verdant fields comprising the event venue, the National Agricultural Exhibition Centre (NAEC) in Warwickshire, in the heart of England’s green and pleasant Midlands, was a welcome contrast to cannabis business events in the U.S. And though less than two hours by car from London’s Heathrow Airport, it was seemingly worlds away from the capital city in the throes of pre-Brexit fear, anxiety and recrimination.  

Despite clear admonitions to the contrary, public consumption without incident was observed in the outdoor areas for the duration (including on the first day, to which access was officially limited to B2B only).  Don’t get the impression public consumption was rampant, “incidental” is more like it, like most industry expos we’ve attended in North America and beyond. Like stepping outside for a breath of fresh air and some sunshine, or a cigarette.  Nothing unusual; remarkable only because it’s officially prohibited at some level or another, like other lifestyle choices and personal activities have been, or inevitably will be, somewhere at some time.  

The pastoral NAEC seems an ideal setting.  Chatting with the crew from Ali-Bongo during a break on the B2B day, we learn that this is the first time for PEX at the NAEC, the third location in the event’s three-year history.  It’s suggested that discomfort with public outdoor consumption is why PEX did not return to its previous, more urban setting in nearby Birmingham and that a fixed time and place are needed to take the annual event to the next level.  Perhaps this time PEX will be invited back to NAEC. Exiting on the last night two days later, a guard remarks to us on the “easy crowd,” saying he hopes they return. Fellow attendees reported similar positive interactions with the consistently kind and cheerful security staff.

Holding court inside at the large Emerald Cup booth were eminent Emerald Triangle emissaries, including Swami Chaitanya and Nikki Lastreto, Dan Herer, Jesse Dodd, Maya Elisabeth, Taylor Blake, Frenchy Cannoli, and goodwill ambassador Mighty Mickey 420.  Now 80, Mickey tells us he ran away from home in Connecticut to join the circus 65 years ago and hasn’t stopped smiling since. No offense to the investors and business professionals with whom we normally mingle, but we haven’t seen an industry event as fresh and fun as this one since the Emerald Cup in December.  Here too, the industry’s prohibition-era roots in a genuine love of cannabis, nature, creativity, compassion, community, self-reliance, and freedom are clearly evident.

Seminar programming was heavy on hemp, agriculture and gardening themes, and also included sessions on the plight of patients and their caregivers, women in cannabis, entrepreneurship, and cannabis products.  The Emerald Cup crew fielded three well-attended panels on California cannabis-industry history, regenerative agriculture, and the value of recognizing cannabis appellations, an idea still struggling to take root in the rapidly industrializing legal markets of North America.

Activism in the U.K.

Most compelling was a panel moderated by Greg de Hoedt, Chairman of UK Cannabis Social Clubs, a non-profit organization that since 2011 has been offering advice and guidance to cannabis consumers, social clubs, politicians and the police.  Mr. de Hoedt is also Executive Editor of The Quarter Leaf magazine (“a voice for the UK cannabis culture”). The panel, which was previously unannounced (the printed program indicated only “TBC—SPECIAL GUEST,” perhaps on purpose), was comprised of U.K. cannabis activists and social club organizers.  Though not all shared their full names, they generously shared their personal stories, impressing us with their grit and determination to defy—until they can roll back—the criminalization of personal cannabis cultivation and use in the U.K., where legal cannabis remedies are totally unavailable for most conditions or else prohibitively expensive for most people.  To some, what little liberalization has occurred appears to have been designed mainly to enable well-connected elites to profit from cannabis reform in other countries. We learn that thanks to convenient concessions granted by the Home Office to GW Pharmaceuticals and their supplier, British Sugar, the U.K. is the largest producer and exporter of medical cannabis in the world.  According to statistics published by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent body that monitors the implementation of UN drug conventions, the country produced more than 258 metric tons of cannabis and exported some 4.9 tons (69.1% of the global total) in 2017, “mainly in the form of cannabis extracts and pharmaceutical preparations containing cannabis extracts.” The quantity produced by the U.K. was nearly double the amount produced in Canada in the same period (2017), according to the INCB report, during which 37.9 hectares of cannabis were harvested in the U.K. versus 20.2 hectares in Canada.  The report, which qualifies the statistics by advising the “production figures . . . are reported as received” and quantities may vary based on the extraction methods used, can be viewed here (the statistics cited are on pages 44-46).  

As many in the U.S. know, GW Pharma produces Epidiolex, a CBD drug that in 2018 was approved for use in the U.S. to treat certain childhood epilepsies (Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome).  Although Epidiolex is not yet licensed in the U.K., Sativex, a GW Pharma cannabis concoction for the relief of muscle spasticity associated with MS (and which contains THC), has been available since 2010 and is now available in about 25 other countries, though not yet in the U.S.  Both medicines are produced by GW Pharma from cannabis grown by British Sugar at a massive greenhouse operation in East Anglia. 

Prescriptions for Sativex are generally unavailable through the NHS formulary, based on an assessment of cost-effectiveness.  Patients who would benefit from cannabis medicines—including those whose taxes fund the NHS—can either go without, take health and legal risks buying on the black market, or grow at home.  

Never mind THC.  As we learned earlier in the day, even hemp and CBD remain highly controversial and risky.  In July, Hempen UK, a cooperative, non-profit hemp farm in Oxfordshire, was forced to destroy its 40-acre crop in the field when its license was suddenly revoked by the Home Office.  In November, the Home Office instructed licensees not to grow flowers for oil and CBD, so Hempen refocused its efforts on producing seed and stalk instead. Then in July, the Home Office decided that was too much and revoked Hempen’s license altogether.  Hempen estimates its direct loss at £240,000, but that the crop’s potential value would be £2,400,000 if harvested as CBD flower and converted to marketable products. Hemp remains regulated by the Home Office department with jurisdiction over firearms and drugs, yet it is legal to import CBD to the U.K., which is just what Hempen has been doing to continue its product line and remain afloat while it mounts a legal challenge.  

In the meantime, close connections between GW Pharma, British Sugar and senior government officials have not gone unnoticed in the U.K.’s cannabis community.  They point out that approval for British Sugar to grow cannabis for GW Pharma was granted by the Home Office, and that the current drugs minister, known as an anti-drug hardliner, is married to the managing director of British Sugar.  Philip May, the former PM’s husband, is an employee of Capital Group, a U.S. investment firm, which owns, through subsidiaries, more than 20% of GW Pharma’s ordinary shares (per SEC filings as of April 2019).  It should be noted that the British Sugar deal was approved in 2006, that Ms. Atkins was appointed drugs minister (officially, “Under Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability”) in November 2017 and has recused herself from cannabis policy decisions, and that Mr. May’s role at Capital Group is that of a client relationship manager, a position with no authority over investment decisions.  Nevertheless, none of this is sitting well with our panelists. Through personal experience, they are certain cannabis is a safe and effective remedy for many intractable conditions, one that can be safely produced at home at a much lower cost than patients have to pay privately for the few and very dear cannabis prescription meds that are available. Though some have been treated harshly by the law for following their conscience when it comes to cannabis, they remain undeterred.

Take Gary Youds, a feisty, selfless property developer and father of two from Liverpool.  To fill the gap between what the law allows and what the people want, he set upon a community-based solution and opened the Chillin’ Rooms Cannabis Club.  Though he wasn’t ill himself, he knew many who were, and after attending a cannabis conference in 2002 he began to realize a vision of a safe place in a rough town where patients could learn about, obtain and peacefully consume quality cannabis with friendly, like-minded folk—an establishment that would boost the local economy and take illicit business and consumption off the streets and away from gangs and the eyes of the police.  He applied to his local council in 2002 to open a private club for cannabis users; when his application was denied, he did so anyway. Rather than reap just profits for the risks he was taking, he returned money to his customers, encouraging them to grow at home and sell to the club. Despite being raided and shut down multiple times, the club thrived and became a beacon to patients and enthusiasts and an inspiration for other activists.  These contributions came at great personal sacrifice to Mr. Youds. He endured 12 months in prison in 2006 and another nine in 2017, and he tells us he has been arrested nine times in as many months this year for cannabis offenses. The club is now closed, and he is expected to stand trial on a cultivation charge in February. 

Then there is Callie Blackwell, who is perhaps the best-known of the activists speaking on the panel.  Desperate to help her son, Deryn, who had beaten leukemia but who was undergoing a fourth bone marrow transplant after three failed attempts and apparently near death, she learned about cannabis as a potential treatment and traveled abroad to bring back cannabis oil with which to treat him in secret.  She claims it saved his life. She later tells us that in 2014, nearly a year after Deryn’s recovery, she was being harassed by someone who knew what she had done and was threatening to report her to the police. She became deeply distressed at the prospect of losing her children and was diagnosed with PTSD, for which she was prescribed antidepressants.  She found that cannabis worked better. She says she didn’t know a thing about cannabis before researching how to heal her son and fell into activism only after she saw it save Deryn. Now she feels a “moral obligation” to help people who come to her and does so without pay because “corruption follows wherever there is money to be made.” 

Two panelists understandably did not give their full names.  “Ace,” a Type I diabetes sufferer and caregiver from Sussex claims to have reduced his insulin dosage by vaping cannabis.  He also assists friends suffering from cancer who were spending a lot of money and risking their jobs by traveling to London to buy cannabis oil.  “Aggs,” Vice Chairman of the Brighton Cannabis Club, spoke about the club and its 1,500 members.  He later tells us the club staged semi-regular pop-up events for six years then enjoyed a fixed location for about nine months until it was recently uprooted because the prime tenant they were subleasing from stopped paying rent to the landlord.  They are looking for a new, more permanent location. 

That brings us to Phil Monk, whom we almost didn’t meet. He tells us he was invited to join the panel on only 20-minutes’ notice, and that he wouldn’t have even been at PEX had he not talked his way into a free booth.  Though physically diminished at age 40, still suffering from a variety of painful conditions, and somewhat reliant on an electric mobility scooter, he has not let any of this or a childhood marred by various forms of abuse keep him down.  His calm yet indomitable spirit is a force to reckon with, as the UK government will soon find out. Mr. Monk is the founder of, and the brains and guts behind, We The Undersigned (officially known as “We the Undersigned Have a Human Sovereign Right to Cannabis” or “WTU” for short), a grass-roots activist organization that has recently obtained funding and legal representation to mount a forceful challenge to cannabis prohibition in the UK, on human rights and other grounds.  We chat after the panel and by phone a few days later for an extended interview.  

Though English, he spent most of his childhood in remote North Wales, where he was raised by his stepfather and says he was “racially abused” by the locals.  At age 16, he discovered cannabis, which he credits with calming suicidal thoughts brought on by the bullying and isolation. His nearest friend lived 20 miles away, and his primary modes of transportation were walking and mountain biking.  From an unusual amount of bike riding, he developed bilateral ulnar impaction syndrome (his ulnar grew to be too long relative to the radius) resulting in years of chronic wrist pain. At age 18 he reunited with his birth father and relocated to the Midlands, where he developed a passion for fly fishing.  Constantly struggling to hold a fly-fishing rod, and even a cup of tea, he smoked a lot of joints while fishing to manage the pain. A work injury led to corrective surgery (his arms were shortened by four millimeters), but also to difficulty walking and 10 years of “non-stop” pain. Of course, like so many others, he was prescribed opiates and other pharmaceuticals.  Then things got worse. Bad reactions to the prescription meds led to ER visits and hospitalizations and induced fears of potentially life-threatening conditions—brain hemorrhaging from beta-blockers, mini-strokes from Citalopram, bowel and bladder cancer from Tramadol, and liver cancer from Zomorph.  

Though the mortal fears proved to be unfounded—mere “side effects” he was told—the doctors advised he stay on the meds or else his life would truly be at risk.  Emotionally drained from all the false alarms, he turned his back on pharmaceuticals in favor of cannabis, which he had already begun to research. Frustrated by the limited quantity and uneven quality of black-market weed, he was shocked into action when his then 14-year-old son offered to bring some home to relieve his pain.  “It’s easier for children to get,” he says. He decided to take charge of his own destiny.  

Having been an avid gardener of Bonsai trees and fruits and vegetables, he set out to grow his preferred medicine at home.  He set up an indoor hydroponic garden of five plants inside a 60-centimeter tent, then did something most DIY cannabis gardeners would not dare do.  “On the day I planted the first seed,” he says he wrote to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the drugs minister, the health minister and other government officials to tell them what he was doing.  The only reply of any substance was a warning that his sort of gardening could land him in prison for up to 14 years.

As he sees it, it’s a matter of human rights.  He believes in “freedom of consciousness—the right to private beliefs and practices,” that laws banning substances or practices must be based on protecting people from harm, and that “cannabis is not harmful.”  “It’s absurd,” he says. “Home-grow and home-brew are a big part of the culture. You can brew beer to drink yourself and your friends to death,” but growing cannabis at home for personal use is a crime. 

Looking back, he says he used to be very angry at losing himself, and his identity to illness and prescription meds.  He cites Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” saying he “smiles now for pain—it releases the anandamide.” So does the cannabis, which he continues to grow and use.  So far, he has not been disturbed by the authorities, yet in 2018 he took the precaution of informing the local police of his garden. He asked that they not use violence if they raid his home—he has a wife and three children; he won’t resist.  

He credits education for turning him towards activism.  Higher education (pun not intended—really!) was not an option until he became unfit for work due to his disabilities and returned to college as an adult learner.  Enrolled in a “low-esteem university” (as he puts it), he was determined to excel and committed himself to his studies. A dissertation on adult literacy helped to hone research skills he later applied to learning more about cannabis and its therapeutic uses.  That he was able to access credible information suggesting many potential benefits to cannabis led him to conclude that none of this was news to his government.  He points to reports in the BMJ (a publication of the British Medical Association), including one by Philip Robson from April 1998 advising that although the “role of cannabinoids in modern therapeutics remains uncertain, . . . it would be irrational not to explore it.  The active components of a plant which has been prized as a medicine for thousands of years should not be discarded lightly, and certainly not through political expediency or as a casualty of the war on drugs.” 

He doesn’t understand why, 21 years on, access to cannabis is still generally prohibited, except by expensive private prescriptions and only rarely through the vaunted National Health Service (NHS).  He says he has been asking the NHS for a Sativex prescription since 2014, which they deny him, claiming there is a lack of evidence of safety and efficacy.  Yet, the medicine is lawfully available by private prescription at a monthly cost of £1,000-2,000, which he cannot afford. If it is unsafe, why is it available lawfully by private prescription; if it is not effective, why would those who can afford to pay so much for it?  “Cannabis is not illegal, only those who cultivate and use their own,” he says. “I could be healthy legally, if I wasn’t poor.”  

We the Undersigned

Thus, WTU, which seeks decriminalization of cannabis as opposed to legalization, maintaining that the right to grow and use cannabis is a fundamental human right, one that transcends national boundaries, not a privilege to be granted or denied by the state.  This is why Mr. Monk and WTU argue that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the UK’s version of the Controlled Substances Act) must be struck down as incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998.  A “declaration of incompatibility” would require Parliament to rewrite or repeal the offending law. He’s also articulated other angles of attack, including an interesting argument that the Drugs Act prohibition of marijuana should be interpreted as applying only to synthetic cannabinoids (“the ones that are causing most of the harm associated with illicit cannabis use”), not unprocessed flower or whole-plant extracts.  Over the course of a year, Mr. Monk wrote to “every solicitor in the country” laying out his reasoning and seeking representation. “They all replied they can’t take the case; it’s too political; it’s too expensive; it will take too long. None said there was no case here,” he notes. Finally, his persistence paid off. Recently, a new firm of solicitors focused on cannabis has agreed to help, and WTU has raised just enough funds so they can get to work.  A high-profile barrister has also been recruited, he says, though he declines to divulge the name to avoid any risk of intimidation.  

Stay tuned.  While the messy Brexit debate dominates the headlines, another public fight over self-determination is in the works.  Whatever the legal merits of WTU’s case, one thing seems clear: Stamping out home-grow in a country where gardening is the national pastime will be a hard row to hoe.  

James Hirsch is a cannabis investor, lawyer and licensed insurance broker based in New York City.

A version of this story appeared in print in THE HONEY POT Volume 1 (PRIMO), coming soon to Barnes & Noble and other major retailers nationwide. Download the Honeysuckle Magazine app on iTunes or Google Play, or check out our Apple News and Zinio channels for digital copies of the issue now available.