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.
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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.