The legalisation of cannabis in the UK could lead to big business

For more than 60 years, the debate surrounding the ­legalisation of cannabis has been driven by activists – mostly hippies, new-age healers and liberal newspaper editors.

Along the way, police officers, doctors and drug experts have all lent their voices to end the prohibition on pot.

But in the UK the movement has never really gained any political traction.

Pro-legalisation campaigners have been thwarted by a combination of British conservatism, risk-averse politicians and the evidence that super-strong strains of cannabis, such as skunk and sensimilla, can literally send people mad.

The recent case of Alfie Dingley, the six-year-old boy from Warwickshire who was denied permission to use the cannabis oil his parents believe helps to reduce the number and severity of his epileptic seizures, has again put the issue in the spotlight.

Legitimate business

The Home Office denied the Dingleys’ request for a cannabis licence because under UK law the drug “cannot be practically prescribed, administered or supplied to the public”.

Yet something has happened in the past two years which means Britain will almost certainly be the next Western democracy to open its streets to the sweet-smelling aroma of the world’s most popular recreational drug.

That something is the even sweeter smell of the huge amounts of cash being made by legitimate businesses who have been investing in the liberalisation of world cannabis markets. In Europe, 14 countries have brought in various decriminalisation models for the medical or recreational sale of cannabis.

However, it is in America where the greatest changes have suddenly made the cultivation and marketing of the drug very profitable indeed.

Recreational use

New laws brought in by several US states, based on a Supreme Court ruling that gave Americans the right to use cannabis to treat medical conditions, have opened up the country to a plethora of business opportunities.

On 1 January, recreational marijuana became legal in California, opening the market to the world’s sixth largest economy. Legal marijuana sales are predicted to reach $9.7bn (£6.95bn) in 2017 and $24.5bn by 2021.

Canada has recently joined the marijuana gold rush and is well on the way to enacting similar laws, legalising the use of cannabis for medical and recreational use.

Section grower Corey Evans walks between flowering marijuana plants at the Canopy Growth Corporation facility in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Getty

Private equity firms and individual investors have been falling over each other to get in on the act. None more so than in the UK, where a third of the American investment capital has been raised.

Leading the charge is the US-based private equity company, Privateer Holdings, which is reported to have benefited from City of London funding. To date, Privateer has raised more than £100m to invest in a range of legal cannabis products.

Another company doing well is Columbia Care, a multimillion dollar cannabis cultivation business which supplies the US trade in medical marijuana. It is run by a former Metropolitan policeman, Mike Abbott who in 2016 promised: “I’d love to bring some lessons we have learnt here to Britain.”

Wealthy investors

In the UK, it is estimated that the cannabis market could be worth £10bn. So it is hardly surprising that pro-cannabis lobbyists and reform groups are being supported by investments from wealthy investors.

One of the most prominent is Paul Birch who, with his brother and sister-in-law, founded the social network enterprise, Bebo. The business was sold in 2008 for $850m.

Birch has used some of his cash to try to soft-sell cannabis to the City and the UK Government. Cannabis remains a Class B drug, carrying sentences of up to 14 years imprisonment for production and supply and five years for possession.

Yet there is growing evidence that the drug can help in the treatment of many medical conditions, including epilepsy and MS.

In 2015, Birch funded a new political party called Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol to campaign on the issue and set up a think-tank, Volteface, which campaigns on alternative drugs policies.

He has recruited a large team housed in offices just off Tottenham Court Road in central London. A key appointment is Steve Moore, a former adviser to David Cameron, who Birch has made the director of his think-tank.

War on drugs

Moore believes Britain has lost the war on drugs, leaving the criminal underworld in charge of the production and sale of the very strongest strains of cannabis, containing high levels of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) common in drugs such as skunk.

A worker collects cuttings from a marijuana plant at the Canopy Growth Corporation facility in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, 2018. Photo: Getty

He told i that the stagnation on drugs policy has left young people vulnerable to these potentially dangerous forms of cannabis while also denying people suffering from a range of diseases and illnesses the medicinal benefits of the drug.

Moore says: “the most important innovations are taking place overseas, while here in the UK the debate about alternatives to existing drug policies had become ossified. When it comes to reforming cannabis laws, it is to the Americas that one must turn. The reforms currently taking place in some US states, Canada will change the nature of these debates forever.”

Profit over protest

He candidly argues: “The profits to be made in such a huge market by licensed businesses will finance the lobbying and political campaigning that will henceforth ensure that it is business, more than civil activism, that is likely to drive further reforms in the US and other territories around the world.”

And the tax revenues, generated by the introduction of a UK cannabis market, could be used to tackle addiction to harder drugs.

In the next few months, Volteface is to step up its lobbying by launching “Cannabis in the UK” which Moore says will “take the conversations and consultations we have been having behind the scenes with members of the public, politicians and stakeholder groups into the public domain”.

In this way the campaign to make cannabis legal in Britain has been given a corporate makeover. And capitalism has a habit of changing the laws that stand in the way of profit.

The Canada model Protecting the young

As a member of the Liberal Party, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to legalise cannabis during his 2015 campaign. Canada’s Cannabis Act is expected to become law later this year.

Because the Canadian constitution is more akin to the UK’s, many cannabis campaigners in the UK believe we are more likely to follow the Canadian model.

The focus has been on protecting young people from harmful use of cannabis so the proposed new law is tough on anyone who sells cannabis to under-18s.

Until legislation is enacted, marijuana remains illegal except for medical purposes. Annual sales for Canada’s recreational marijuana market are estimated to range between $2.3bn (£1.64bn) and $4.5bn by 2021.

The law Fines and a prison sentence

Possession of cannabis, a class-B drug, carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.

Anyone convicted of the supply and production of the drug faces a maximum 14-year jail term and an unlimited fine.

The policing of these laws is more relaxed with first-time users being allowed to escape with a caution and many forces turning a blind eye to recreational use.

In 2004, the Labour government reclassified cannabis to a class-C drug, removing the threat of arrest for possession, a move proposed as long ago as 1979.

But it turned out to be shortlived and in 2008 the new Home Secretary Jacqui Smith confirmed that cannabis in the UK would again be classified as a class-B drug.

A very limited number of cannabis-based medicines are available in the UK but they remain expensive.

Original article published February 24, 2018 at 07:55AM Source: http://ift.tt/2ot4RMk

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