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Corporate America’s Campaign to Legalize Pot in Britain

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 [1].

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Corporate America’s Campaign to Legalize Pot in Britain"

#1 Comment By Colin Chattan On July 9, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

That’s a maple leaf, not cannabis leaf, on which the Union Jack is imprinted at the head of the article. But, then again, since Canada is becoming officially a nation of stoners, the image is arguably apt if Britain is going down the same road as Canada.

#2 Comment By Charles On July 9, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

Yup, the Tories saw the money to be made so suddenly their years of opposition evaporate like the morning dew. More generally, Brits have viewed cannabis as a minor issue, less harmful than alcohol, for years and have been deeply unimpressed by the pandering of successive governments to the hang ‘em and flog ‘em tabloid press.

#3 Comment By mrscracker On July 9, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

I personally think we have way too many folks walking around in altered states of mind as it is. Between alcohol, prescription psychotropic meds-legally obtained & otherwise, painkillers, etc, etc, I find I’m having more conversations these days with people who are only about 70 percent “there.”
Cannabis may be milder than the other narcotics but there’s plenty of data suggesting links between its use & an earlier onset of psychosis in young people.
I don’t want it criminalized because prison can be even more harmful than weed, but we should be honest about the risks surrounding marijuana. It’s a much more potent plant than the one folks smoked in the 1960’s & ’70’s.
I’d prefer it not legalized & certainly not for recreational use. But neither should folks be thrown in prison over it.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 9, 2018 @ 6:52 pm

“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.”

this is only depressing because i had long ago thought that great britain had already given up keeping this drug illegal.

the level of false advertising about marijuana knows no shame.

god save the queen

#5 Comment By JeffK On July 9, 2018 @ 11:44 pm

When I was in the UK 10 years ago people were rather openly, but discreetly, smoking weed in various places. Especially the young.

Just another law that is widely broken and enforced with a prosecutors discretion. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Widely broken laws that are victimless crimes should be abolished. Common sense if anything is.

#6 Comment By Youknowho On July 10, 2018 @ 7:09 am

If there had been no widespread prohibition not only of mariuana but of hemp, by now there would be several farmacolgical derivatives that could be used safely. As well as hemp clothing or paper.

“De aquellos polvos vinieron estos lodos” “From that dust came this mud”

#7 Comment By mike On July 10, 2018 @ 8:23 am

That looks like a maple leaf.
Do some people smoke those?

#8 Comment By Imissbuckley On July 10, 2018 @ 9:41 am

“Cannabis is still illegal in Britain, though the police hardly bother to arrest people for smoking it any more.”

You are correct the number of arrests appear to be falling: [2]

Since this is the case, wouldn’t removing the law from the books be the conservative thing to do? Either that or go back to arresting everyone. Drug Warriors can’t have it both ways.

“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.”

Isn’t this always the case for politicians. I think advocates for smaller government should take advantage of it and organize to start a repealing draconian and incomprehensible laws.

Yes businesses are going to make money. Who cares? I rather the drug be in a legal lightly taxed regulated market where consumer protection exists then in a black market where the risk of arrest and harm still exists.

#9 Comment By Sean On July 10, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

Apparently the author of this idiot article and some of the commenters feel they are so morally superior. Move to Singapore or the Philippines if you adore hangman drug laws. Quit taking people to jail for weed to feed your phoney moral superiority.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 10, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

“Widely broken laws that are victimless crimes should be abolished. Common sense if anything is.”

viciimless, surely you are not referring to people injured at work, or broken families from neglect, or those injured or killed in vehicle accidents.

“Apparently the author of this idiot article and some of the commenters feel they are so morally superior.”

not at all, but i am opposed to introducing another mind altering substance to the masses, especially one with such a horrid odor and residue.

and i am not bound by any particular loyalty to alcohol either

god save the queen

“That looks like a maple leaf.
Do some people smoke those?”


#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 10, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

in fact in mu neighborhood there’s not a week that goes by that i don’t have to use eye drops to clear my eyes of what i suspect is the use of the “—awful stuff.”