When it comes to getting high, we Brits have lagged behind you Americans. We copied your dope smoking in the 1960s and your cocaine habits in the 1980s. In recent years, we’ve even begun to develop our own minor opioid epidemic. And now, just in time for Brexit, we’re aping your liberalization of the law on cannabis.
Cannabis is still illegal in Britain, though the police hardly bother to arrest people for smoking it any more. Nevertheless, earlier this month, in what American journalists might call a “strange outbreak of bipartisan unity,” the British political class suddenly embraced pro-cannabis reform.
Jeremy Hunt, the health minister, came out in support of legalizing cannabis for medical use. “I don’t think anyone can say that we are getting the law right on this,” he said. The Labour Party’s Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, committed the party to legalizing cannabis oil for medical purposes.
Then it was reported that Sajid Javid, the home secretary, had argued with Prime Minister Theresa May about the government’s illiberal position on medical marijuana. Javid is a big Ayn Rand fan, obviously, and he seemed to win the argument. May promptly appointed Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies to conduct a review of the licensing of cannabis as a therapeutic drug.
That wasn’t enough for William Hague, the former Tory Party leader and foreign secretary. He wrote an article in The Telegraph calling for recreational cannabis to be legalized because the so-called war on it had been “comprehensively and irreversibly lost.” A report then came out—produced by the IEA, a free-market think tank—that said legalizing cannabis would smoke out £1 billion in tax revenue.
The ostensible reason for this sudden volte-face from the conservative establishment was the heart-rending case of a 12-year-old boy from Northern Ireland called Billy Caldwell. Billy has severe autism and epilepsy, and his mother, Charlotte, says cannabis oil—first prescribed to him by a childhood epilepsy expert in California—is the only treatment that is effective.
In a protest against Britain’s prohibition, she declared her intention to “openly smuggle” cannabis oil into the UK from Canada. “I will ask them if they will let me keep this safe, regulated medicine that has kept my little boy alive—or are they going to take it off me, condemning my son to possible death?” she said. “If they confiscate Billy’s medicine and arrest me, they are signing his death warrant.” She was arrested, of course, and became a cause célèbre before she was released with a government apology.
Nobody should doubt Charlotte’s sincerity, or her love for her son. But the circulation of her story had a heavy, grade-A skunk whiff of devilish PR about it. It was splattered across the tabloids for days. There can be no doubt that several extremely well-funded North American cannabis corporations are trying to cash in on the British market. And the sudden zeal with which the political class jumped on her cause as a reason to legalize cannabis entirely invites suspicion. Could it be, by any chance, that various British politicians are being quite heavily lobbied? Of course it could. A few days after the Caldwell story hit the headlines, Canada—where Charlotte Caldwell had traveled from—legalized the recreational use of marijuana.
What’s equally troubling, however, is not just the nefarious and greedy agendas of corporate interests. It is the way in which the Westminster bubble—our equivalent of the Washington swamp—and the media suddenly and completely changed the whole tone of the debate around the rights and wrongs of cannabis consumption because of one sad story. As Ross Clark notes in The Spectator, the drug legalization lobby has cottoned on to Billy’s huge propaganda potential. “The narrative it wants to spin is that a demented prohibitionist policy practiced by the UK government is killing kids as well as taking the fun out of rock festivals,” Clark writes.
At the highest levels of government, ministers were so keen to signal that they cared about little Billy that they ignored the truth about cannabis, or the latest science about its benefits and harms. Few of these new converts noted, for instance, that there is already a cannabis-derived medicine, Sativex, which is licensed in the UK for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Nor did many ministers note, for instance, that medical science has proven that the fun part of cannabis, the psychoactive ingredient Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is not what helps epileptics. It is Cannabidoil (CBD), which trials suggest can significantly reduce epilepsy seizures. As for THC, there has been no randomized control that suggests it is an effective treatment for epilepsy. Some studies suggest it has anti-convulsant qualities; others suggest it makes convulsions worse. Nobody seems to know what cannabis oil Billy was taking, but it seems likely that what worked for him was CBD, which doesn’t get you stoned, not THC, which does. Good regulators ought not to license drugs on the basis of one woman’s anecdote, no matter how distressing.
Theresa May’s husband Philip May works for a company that owns the largest stake in GW Pharmaceuticals, which produces Sativex. Under a Home Office license, GW grows more than 20 million tons of cannabis annually in Britain. Given that it is the only company licensed to do so, it effectively has a monopoly on the legal supply of medical marijuana. Somewhat surprisingly, given the illegal status of cannabis, Britain is now the largest exporter of legal cannabis in the world—with UK production now accounting for just under 45 percent of the world total. So while the heartfelt message about the plight of Billy Caldwell’s case is no doubt sincere, more mercantile forces are in play. Britain’s marijuana market is there for the taking.
America and Canada are, we are told, leading the way on the liberalization of marijuana, both for medical and recreational use. And it seems highly likely that the debate in Britain will soon shift towards whether or not we should legalize recreational marijuana. The newly invigorated pro-legalization lobby seem unbothered by the medical evidence. Instead, they see a massive new market opening up, as it has across the Atlantic. This is what really gets Britain’s conservative politicians high.
Lara Prendergast is assistant editor for The Spectator .