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Inside the Big Cannabis lobby A booming private sector is pricing out consumers

Whose side is Whitehall on? (Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Whose side is Whitehall on? (Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


September 12, 2023   6 mins

The spot was just off a country road in Kenilworth, a town in Warwickshire, at an events centre called the NAEC Stoneleigh. The week before, it had hosted the annual Stoneleigh Horse Show, a buttoned-up pageant of show-jumps and tweedy dressage. This weekend, the bouncer at the door was smoking a joint.

I was here for the Product Earth Expo: the “UK’s no.1 legal cannabis, CBD, and nootropic experience”. The three-day event, co-organised by a former marketing lead at Facebook and a Harvard-educated medical data executive, is an outdoor festival of business and pleasure, with live music taking place alongside panel discussions on the various questions and goings-on in British cannabis. There are glassblowers, stalls for CBD businesses, tools for rolling, growing and baking weed, as well as medical and activist groups such as David Nutt’s Drug Science, Hemptank and the UK cannabis patients’ group.

Being an event centred around cannabis, it’s little surprise that funny smells were detectable throughout the grounds. No police were in sight. As with Hyde Park’s annual “4/20” gathering, last month’s Notting Hill Carnival and near-enough every music festival, the Expo’s look-the-other-way approach allows for a brief and flailing glimpse at our muddied present of drug policy.

Britain’s approach to cannabis can be described as contradictory — and in many ways backward. North America has largely legalised the drug, and Germany is following suit. But in Britain, some police forces will still raid large-scale dealers, even while medical cannabis patients are cultivating their own plants and small-scale growers are semi-officially tolerated in some counties. One scheme with a stall at the Expo was Cancard, an unapproved ID card scheme that lists users as medical cannabis patients and is backed by some police officers. If stopped, users can show their Cancard to excuse their use on medical grounds.

In reality, though, little has officially changed since 2018, when medical cannabis was first approved. Since then, senior Tory figures including William Hague have come out in favour of reform, while new cannabis companies entered the market and the City wetted its lips with anticipation. Britain swiftly became one of the world’s largest export-producers of medical and scientific cannabis. But, last year, regulators launched a crackdown on substandard and over-marketed items — and now the Expo’s founders are concerned about the CBD market’s possible collapse.

Medical cannabis was first approved in California off the back of stories of how it could relieve the symptoms of Aids patients. And this playbook has been followed in the UK. In 2018, a child whose epilepsy was treated with medical cannabis had his prescription seized at Heathrow Airport, prompting a relapse. Cameras and press were ready waiting. The resulting campaign, “End Our Pain”, was funded by commercial interests and led by Steve Moore, a former insider in the Cameron government, who later started the drug reform advocacy organisation VolteFace with funding from Paul Birch, the founder of Bebo. One of the other co-founders was Alastair Moore (no relation), who also co-founded a cannabis consulting firm called Hanway Associates.

Two years later, the British Medical Journal documented a dense range of interconnections between pressure and patient groups and industry funders in the nascent cannabis market. New initiatives have since emerged: as well as founding VolteFace (with which he is no longer involved) Steve Moore would go on to set up the industry-funded Centre for Medical Cannabis and the Association for Cannabinoid Industry. Elsewhere, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for CBD is managed by Tenacious Labs, a CBD firm, while the newly-elected Secretariat of the APPG for Medical Cannabis is jointly held by VolteFace and the industry-funded Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society.

It is an instinctively suspicious series of intersections between government and business lobbying. But Neil Woods, an ex-police officer and activist for drug policy reform, has questioned the significance of such connections. “Big business is of course interested in the emerging opportunities of a legal cannabis market for adult use,” he says. “But so what?” And Steve Moore himself has previously argued that a “public-private partnership” will always underlie a coalition for change. But for all the money involved, the market is still fraught with problems: many firms are loss-making, and rising interest rates are cutting the relative attraction of risky and future-looking businesses. Westminster isn’t playing ball, either, with home secretary Suella Braverman reportedly considering upgrading cannabis to Class A status.

Despite Braverman’s concerns, the medical case for cannabis has made some important advances. Medical cannabis was Nice-approved in 2018 for three conditions: severe treatment-resistant epilepsy, muscle spasticity, and chemotherapy-related nausea. Each of these conditions is prescribed as a last resort using a patented formulation, even when first-line treatments involve punishing side effects. But few prescriptions have ever been made on the NHS. Instead, a large private sector using registered cannabis clinicians has emerged, offering prescriptions to patients for a range of conditions where prior treatments have failed — including anxiety, depression and ADHD, for which evidence of cannabis’s efficacy is quite limited. For an “initial consultation” at clinics such as the Lyphe Group, Sapphire Medical Clinics and the London Cannabis Clinic, patients pay as much as £399. And many later complain that the expensive products from private prescribers are of inferior quality — often late, sometimes contaminated with mould.

Unsurprisingly, ideological arguments about the “right to get high” and bodily autonomy are rarely seen (at least explicitly) in the mainstream. All throughout the Product Earth Expo, the dominant way to present cannabis is medical — in line with broader medicalisation rhetoric that presents drug use as a public health problem and not a carceral one. And, perhaps inadvertently, allying with the medical system has exposed cannabis to greater scrutiny on its risks and benefits — as well as the demands of medical evidence. The last 10 years have produced more evidence in particular of cannabis’s link with psychosis, schizophrenia and a range of mental health problems. Indicatively, the Home Affairs Select Committee released a new report last week, which supports a “public health-based harm reduction” approach and calls for “greater provision” of medical cannabis on the NHS. Yet its authors “remain concerned” by cannabis harms and oppose full legalisation.

Walking the aisles of the Product Earth Expo, you get a two-sided picture. Users believe history is on their side. Much more than the old, the young are largely convinced of cannabis reform — though use of the drug has actually declined markedly among the young since the Nineties. Failing legal change, the growing normalcy of cannabis smoke forms part of a gradual and de facto erosion of anti-cannabis policy. Users will keep ignoring the law, until the law is so absent as to seem unworkable.

“Working in the sector it has been so frustrating to see the dialogue stagnate politically,” said Katya Kowalski, the Director of Operations at VolteFace, earlier this year. Indeed, among activists and campaigners, one hears many of the same arguments that have been made for decades, and which first caught flame in the Sixties: the motives of the original anti-hemp campaigners, the possible tax rewards, the relative safety of cannabis. Yet that final point is one on which the cannabis community seems to be losing ground. Making the case that “Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol”, as Bebo founder Paul Birch attempted in 2015, is no longer feasible.

Instead, it is possible that once again re-converging on a sympathetic human story will shift the debate. And Britain is full of such poignant cases. Kyle Brown, 26, is from Winchester and lives with craniometaphyseal dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder that causes the muscles and bones around the head to grow abnormally. He approached me at the Expo and told his story. Brown expects he will not live past 60, and estimates he probably has around eight years of high-capacity living left. Brown consumes medical cannabis to manage the punishing side-effects of his licit prescriptions.

But he still relies on the so-called “legacy market” of street sales because of the high expense of legal prescription. Understandably, he is concerned about the presence of adulterants such as MDMA and fentanyl in his cannabis — as well as the lack of transparency about what exactly he’s smoking, which could contain the high THC concentrations so associated with mental health problems.

Who is truly leading Britain’s evolving cannabis policy is therefore difficult to estimate. The influx of medics, commerce and Big Pharma (though the latter is not as present at the Expo) has so far disappointed with their Whitehall strategy. But the lobbyists still hope to win through a long game, and their proximity to lawmakers would allow them to shape whatever model Britain eventually adopts.

“If they are to legalise cannabis, it will be a fully corporate model,” says Greg de Hoedt, a Crohn’s patient who manages his symptoms with cannabis. He’s also the founder of UK Cannabis Social Clubs, an activist umbrella group for private members’ clubs around the country that grow their own cannabis, smoke together, and offer testing on potency. Social Clubs are part of Germany and Malta’s legalisation models and form a third-way between community and commerce. Social Clubs have been tolerated in Britain historically, says de Hoedt, but he has noted more crackdowns from police in the five years since medical approval compared to before.

The Expo’s attendees are likely unaware of all the lobbying and politicking of the last half-decade. They form the lobby’s shock troops, normalising use and forming the consumer base for the current medical market and a future commercial one. The strategy has a shadow side, though: the more cannabis is unofficially decriminalised, the less immediate the issue seems for a short-term and crisis-driven political system.


Ed Prideaux is a freelance journalist and MSc Psychology student.

EdPrideaux

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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago

The pro-lobby are using exactly the same tactics as the Pro side on any debate (abortion, euthanasia, refugees) by framing it all around the most exceptional cases with the highest sob value.

Naturally, everybody in our post-modern, relativist shitstorm (aka ‘society’) studiously avoids any moral answer to the question let alone judgement.

Meanwhile, the latest bevvy of teenagers get sucked into a spiral of pointless, destructive behaviour, cheered on by ‘cool’, middle-class lefties droning on about their rights to bodily autonomy.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Indeed and abortion and euthanasia are none of your business as well and most young people agree so your views are unrepresentative of the future. Refugees though take up resources which restricts economic freedom.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
8 months ago

The week before, it had hosted the annual Stoneleigh Horse Show, a buttoned-up pageant of show-jumps and tweedy dressage. This weekend, the bouncer at the door was smoking a joint.
From tweedy dressage to weedy dressage.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

Cannabis is an addictive carcinogen which causes hypertension and gum disease, and makes its users boring, angry, fat, depressed, boring, apathetic, bored, useless, slow, annoying, boring, stupid, listless, boring, and boring.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

I take it that you are a long term user

David McKee
David McKee
8 months ago

I think, Mr. Redmayne, you don’t recognise satire when you see it. It does exist outside the pages of ‘Private Eye”!

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

Its hard to tell where commentary ends and satire begins these days.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

It’s not satire.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

And it stinks. Stinks of loser.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

The Smell of Failure.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago

If they are losers then don’t begrudge them a but of pleasure.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

Yes, good point.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
8 months ago

60 years ago most British citizens believed in the rule of law .That has disappeared with many citizens including prominent public figures altitude to the law being if they can get away with breaking it they will do so.
The primary cause of this change in society has to be the cannabis laws.
There is probably not a single person who has tried cannabis who would regard themselves as a ‘criminal’ and yet the law has branded them as ‘criminals’ for decades.Real criminals are thieves,murderers, etc.
Societies would have been better legalising all drugs for adults and taking the possible downsides of that as it is basically wrong to label some drug users as ‘criminals’ whilst other drugs like alcohol are legal.And after that try to educate people about the pros and cons of using any drugs and then let adults chose for themselves..
It is noticable how many rock musicians have consumed lots of illegal drugs and yet many are standing strong when over 80 yrs old.Looking forward to hearing the new Rolling Stones album

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Real criminals are those who break the criminal law, and there are many sorts of criminal law.

You need to do a bit of revision. In fact, more than a bit.

And some of it may not qualify as revision seeing as you seem to lack cognizance of even the most basic facts in this field.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Not mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Maybe the long-lost eleventh was “Thou shalt not feed thy head”.

jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Because the inordinate wealth of rock stars means they have access to concentrated medical care,not BETTER than the NHS can provide as private medicine uses a lot of NHS equipment like MRI scanners etc. The wealthy can AFFORD 24 nursing,therapy,one on one care for weeks or months and they have the incentive of being fit enough to do their next tour and make YET MORE MONEY. If you’re camped out in Beggar City that used to be known as Bristol Town Centre you don’t have that incentive or those resources.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago
Reply to  jane baker

Broadmead is presently overrun by Romanian families who chuck their litter all over the ground and never, ever get fined.

J S
J S
8 months ago

the UK is determined to follow the US off a cliff in every way. Why?

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
8 months ago
Reply to  J S

A nationwide absence of critical thinking skills and self-respect.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago

That’s the same problem we have here in the States.
This isn’t gonna end well.

jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago
Reply to  J S

Dictators and Emperors like fucked up populations.

jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago

It’s already been shown in various reports that I cant quote chapter and verse of but in those places that has legalise drug use of various sorts it hasn’t cut crime,it hasn’t removed the illegal market (why would it) and it hadn’t raised much tax revenue at all. Also this idea that in Portugal for instance,drug users get help,sympathy and understanding,they get taken into a nice clean hospital,have a lovely compassionate nurse to be with them 24/7,get food brought them on silver trays and their bums wiped for them. It’s a fantasy.
It’s the pitch the legalisers sell to make it sound like it’ll be alright. And I thought we all hated Big Pharma so why all this keenness to give em money.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago

Prohibition has been a failure and cannabis should be legalised, regulated for w, taxed and provided medicinally. There is an economic case for this as well as a freedom related case. Dinosaurs opposing it should be ignored especially as they are dying off in increasing numbers with every passing day.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

Has legalisation in the US blunted the demand for illegally grown mary jane?

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

There is no reason to believe it has made much difference, although the health and enforcement costs may be lower than they would otherwise have been. Reduced demand is not an infallible benchmark of policy success.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

Reduced consumption most certainly is an excellent benchmark of policy success.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

Tell us where the funding is for the psychosis clinics and wards, old boy.

And then you can get on your way to Nirvana.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

There’ll be some sort of financial incentive for the psychotic to euthanize themselves, no doubt.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

On careful observation of the ones around here, I see their harming tendencies are more directed toward shop windows, not forgetting loud and energetic debates with street signs.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

If they wish to then why not? I am certain that the average taxpayer wouldn’t care.

jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Love it. Imagine if the government passed a law saying that they were going to legally kill 60% of the population. Well email you your appointment with death. Imagine the outrage,the outcry,the protests.Actually since the shocking compliance with lockdown and mask wearing neither can I. But legalise drug use and let them kill themselves and think it’s their choice.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

The link between cannabis use and psychosis is tenuous for most strains. Legalisation with regulation could reduce consumption of the more harmful concentrated strains and reduce the need for psychosis clinics. There is also the issue of personal freedom

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

So you’re not interested in paying for your damage. Interesting stance.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago

And pay TAX you must be joking.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
8 months ago

This is said very rudely. And the case might be framed in a more respectful way/ Especially as I agree that adults should decide for themselves which moderqtely harmful substance they inject in their own body.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

I injected three marijuanas in my bodie this morning, and now even Douglas’ posts make sense xx

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
P Branagan
P Branagan
8 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

You misspelt your name Dumbetrius!

Chipoko
Chipoko
8 months ago

Is anyone who opposes legalisation a ‘dinosaur’?

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

A free bus around Tottenham to collect some of those who self-medicate and drop them off at the event. Ought to work wonders for a free & fair dialogue . . .

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

The soma lobby probably need a re-think. Cannabis would be a viable solution to the existence of the underclass, but not while we allow them to have children and operate machinery.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I completely agree. Give them all the drugs they want and a free government flat in a special district where they can live among their kind in return for sterilisation. That would improve the quality of the population in the long run and reduce the number of useless eaters

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

Far better to give them hope, dignity, and protection from what is harmful. Cannabis was a brave try, but fails on all 3 criteria.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

“ Dignity” is a subjective concept and is usually an instrument for imposing a set of values on other people. As for hope, that is impossible in our culture and someone already in a rut is unlikely to emerge from it without enormous public expense which taxpayers are not willing to fund.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

Smoking weed drives people into a rut of hopelessness.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Well said.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

Libertarianism is a helluva drug.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

If you are prepared to sacrifice some of your wealth and income to help these people then that would be laudable but don’t expect others to do so via taxes especially if they do not support prohibition.

jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Which it’s why it’s important to tell them their trans and get their kids bits cut off before the poor children know anything.