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Conservatives have been reticent, insouciant even, on cannabis policy for a long time. Avoiding the issue is, however, becoming an increasingly untenable position. Numerous high-profile calls for medical access have made the papers in recent weeks, while a chorus of support for cannabis law reform has been heard from an ever-growing number of ring wing think tanks. Most recently the Tax Payers’ Alliance released a report suggesting reform would create £900 million in savings to the NHS, prisons and policing.
Cannabis law reform has been steadily increasing in political salience with the legalisation of the plant in California this January, Canada set to legalise non-medical adult use later this summer, and a wave of medical cannabis markets opening across the Continent.
Meanwhile in the UK, drugs minister Victoria Atkins has “voluntarily recused herself from policy or decisions relating to cannabis” following the publication in the press that her husband, managing director of British Sugar, is profiting from growing medical cannabis in the UK under a license from the Home Office. The drugs minister is now in a bizarre and specious position: drugs minister in name but voluntarily refusing to do any work concerning the drug that is by far the most popular and prolific illicit substance in the UK.
This comes fresh off the back of other cannabis-related headaches for the Home Office. The family of Alfie Dingley, a six-year-old boy with a rare and debilitating form of epilepsy, has received widespread support for their campaign for Alfie to be granted access to the medical cannabis product he needs to save him from suffering hundreds of seizures a day.
The Home Office appears keen to find a solution that will save Alfie without opening the floodgates to medical cannabis patients across the country and calling into question its strict dogma on drugs. With Victoria Atkins having recused herself from the lion’s share of her job, Nick Hurd is left to pick up the pieces. The minister for policing, who already has his plate full at a time of increasing violence on our capital’s streets, is instead left fielding impassioned calls for access to life saving medicines from the families of sick children.
The pressure shows no signs of abating. On 22nd May the Barbican Centre is hosting Cannabis Europa. The brutalist arts centre will receive hundreds of medical cannabis professionals, investors, patients, advocates, scientists, MEPs, two Conservative MPs and the editor of Reaction, Iain Martin. As Britain leaves Europe, this conference looks to the continent and its cautious experimentation with legal markets for medical cannabis.
The current unyielding resistance to change on this policy is increasingly causing the government more trouble than good. The default position of quietly ignoring the issue, interspersed with a few lacklustre defences of the status quo is no longer sufficient to keep this off the political agenda. With the pressure from the North American industry mounting and medical access to cannabis becoming the norm around the world, it looks likely that calls for reform from patients and the industry will continue to grow.
George McBride is a partner at Hanway Associates