Blair Gibbs is an adviser to VolteFace. He is a former senior adviser to both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Voters have shifted on medical cannabis – but British politicians will not move without more assurances about the path ahead
Cannabis has been a controversial issue in British politics for decades, and without a political consensus emerging over how to change policy direction, or where it might lead us, the current prohibition has held. But perhaps for not much longer.
Media and parliamentary interest in the issue is growing – in part due to reforms gathering pace elsewhere in Europe, and also because of one recent UK case that has highlighted the flaws of our current restrictions. The decent and determined campaigning by Alfie Dingley’s family has done more to advance the argument than any lobby group has achieved in years.
Their emotional story has turned a long-standing policy argument into a real-world dilemma with a human face for Home Office ministers. Expect to see further patient advocacy following this example that will create powerful campaign messages. But even with this pressure, the way forward in the UK is far from certain.
Other countries which instigated a medical regime had to overcome establishment objections, or even government opposition as in Canada, where Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government was forced to grant patients access only after a Supreme Court ruling. The avenue for crowd-funded litigation remains open in the UK, and might yet be the best way to force reluctant Ministers to address the issue.
But campaign pressure and even legal action will not by themselves achieve rapid change unless politicians are persuaded that this is the right course to embark on. And for that they need expert opinion to shift, and they need political assurances about where the path leads. Until now, the former has been difficult because the medical establishment and the Royal Colleges have been silent or openly sceptical, and so Ministers could easily defer to experts who did not favour a law change. As even those dominoes start to fall, politicians will have more intellectual cover to begin consulting on the right way to introduce a medical regime, without being at odds with powerful medical lobbies.
The objective now is to get the British Government to concede that cannabis – safely produced to high quality standards and prescribed in a regulated, clinical context – is not dangerous, and has established health benefits for some patients.
Even the current administration, led by a Prime Minister who is (and will remain) unpersuaded about the merits of cannabis decriminalisation (let alone legalisation) might find this moderate objective palatable. It would not undermine her law and order record, and could coexist with the wider prohibition on drugs, prosecuting traffickers and upholding the UK’s international treaty obligations.
But even that is not necessarily enough. Policy-makers and campaigners all know the real issue. Experience to date tells us that introducing medical cannabis has invariably led to legalisation of recreational pot. And this is a much harder sell. Not only because Britain is less libertarian than the many North American jurisdictions that have gone this far, but also because it is widely seen – and rightly so – as a giant leap. And such things are alien to the British political culture and constitutional tradition.
So rather than pretend that the modest goal of medical access is the destination itself, and no-one who favours medical cannabis wants it be a staging post on the way to wider liberalisation, we have to be honest. It can and often does lead that way, but it is also does not have to.
The fast-developing global cannabis industry has a clear incentive for the UK to move quickly to legislate for recreational cannabis because the market would be so lucrative, but that does not mean it will or should happen. Many business leaders in this space are delusional if they think recreational cannabis will be on sale in the UK any time soon. And it is even less likely to happen if sceptical politicians think that regulating medical cannabis is a slippery slope.
The sector should be upfront about the fact that until now, every country that legalised recreational cannabis first instituted a medical regime, and should explain what this means for the UK. For British politicians, the moves taken by other countries should be presented as a useful process, from which the UK can learn.
In preparing to regulate this substance as a medicine for the first time, we would draw on the experiences of other similar countries and refine our model. And by the time Britain has been operating a medical regime for, say, five years, we will then have ample evidence of the social and economic effects – positive and negative – of legalising cannabis for recreational use. Enough to give legislators the confidence to go the next step – or not.
Because at that point, the debate will be fundamentally different, public opinion may have swung back, and Canada and other major countries will have shown what the outcomes of that bigger leap actually look like. Then the British government can take stock, and decide future policy in the cautious and responsible way that the civil service favours.
In creating a medical cannabis regime, today’s Ministers will not be binding the hands of their successors or setting the UK on an irreversible path to legalisation, but they will be helping patients in need, and moving responsibly to follow the lead set by other advanced economies.
When medical cannabis is legalised and regulated in the UK – perhaps in two years, or maybe five – the shift will be dramatic and very influential for the global industry. Gatherings in London like the one last week – Cannabis Europa – will become commonplace, as doctors and scientists convene to explore the latest research and innovations around medical applications of this plant. And such events will further legitimise cannabis as a medically-useful product for many people, and erode the social stigma that still exists.
In the face of the huge and complex task of delivering Brexit, British politicians will not embrace another domestic reform that feels risky and unpredictable. They need reassurance about the path we are on, and what options remain open to them, before they can fall in line with public opinion.
To achieve that consensus, we have to de-risk the proposition, and convince British legislators that not only have their constituents moved on the issue of medical cannabis, but that changing the law for Alfie Dingley doesn’t mean a posthumous victory for Howard Marks.