In its early days, CLEAR, an advocacy group pushing to reform Britain’s cannabis laws, mostly consisted of a bunch of “old hippies sitting around smoking their bongs”.
“We were discussing how we could ‘free the weed, man’,” says Peter Reynolds, the group’s president.
But as times have changed – and legalising marijuana has come to be seen as a political inevitability in the tax revenue-hungry era of coronavirus – lobbyists like Reynolds have adopted a new professionalism. “Nowadays, we’re much more professional about it. We deliver arguments on the basis of evidence,” he says. “Instead of viewing MPs as the enemy,” Reynolds adds, his group tries to work alongside parliamentarians to affect real change.
CLEAR is one of several groups vying for the Government’s ear on the subject of drug policy reform. They argue that the virus could accelerate the move towards legalisation in the UK as the Government scrambles to plug a yawning hole in its budget.
And despite a widespread economic slowdown, this year has already seen Europe’s largest pot deal ever.
That deal saw British cannabis producer Bridge Farm snapped up by a US-based private equity fund for $81m (£62m), in a move first reported by The Telegraph. It operates a two million sq ft glasshouse facility in Spalding where it aims to start producing hemp for use in CBD, the widely available supplement that some believe reduces anxiety, in addition to stronger cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Bridge Farm has a Home Office licence to grow high-THC cannabis for medical tests. Only 12 such licences have been awarded by the Government.
The Government could make up to £3.5bn in tax revenues from the legal sale of cannabis, a 2018 study found. The UK already has the infrastructure: in 2016, Britain produced 44pc of global cannabis plants intended for medicine and scientific research, according to the UN.
“There’s a very active campaign now in the UK,” says Reynolds, “and it’s much more professionally run now than it was 15 or 20 years ago. In the last 10 years, it has become very professional.” Alongside CLEAR, there are at least half a dozen other trade associations and lobby groups that count some of the largest cannabis producers in the world among their paying members.
These groups are flanked by a host of societies and think-tanks that seek to bolster the evidence-based research into the drug. Industry associations such as the Primary Care Cannabis Network look to support GPs who are interested in learning more about the applications of medicinal marijuana.
Meanwhile, Volteface – one of the most widely known advocacy groups that publishes research in favour of legalisation in the UK – is funded directly by a large Canadian company that produces and sells marijuana products.
Even among politicians, groups have emerged to study the drug and its potential impact on public health and tax revenues.
The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, founded by Tory MP Crispin Blunt, calls for “UK drug policy to truly protect young people, deliver better health and social outcomes for families and communities, and reduce drug-related harms”. But despite this swelling number of action and research groups, many share the same problem.
For those pushing for wider adoption of medicinal marijuana, they are governed by strict rules on the promotion of clinical drugs. “Because we are a clinically prescribed medication, we can’t promote that in any form, so our hands are tied,” says the UK head of government relations at a major Canadian cannabis company.
Unlike in the US, adverts hawking prescription drugs in Britain are illegal because they are seen to influence clinicians and patients. And for the groups holding out for the legalisation of recreational marijuana, they must be even more careful in how they interact with the Government.
“When we talk to politicians, we can’t be seen to be encouraging them to legalise drugs, because that would be walking on very fine ice from a legal perspective,” says the senior executive.
For now, instead of directing their money towards lobbying campaigns in Britain, the largest cannabis producers are playing the long game.
“Just because you legalise cannabis in one country doesn’t mean the same thing is going to happen mind-blowingly fast elsewhere,” the Canadian executive says.
Originally published by The Telegraph on 17/08/2020