Authored By: Mark Taylor
Britain heads to the polls today to vote in what has been billed the ‘Brexit election’, with the Conservative party widely tipped to win a majority despite a last-minute tightening of the polls.
Although there are more newsworthy issues riding on the outcome, the UK’s cannabis scene has found some cause for cheer, and may ultimately benefit regardless of the eventual victor.
Boris Johnson’s incumbent Conservative party have attempted to return to the days they were viewed as the ‘law and order’ choice, in a bid to sway the traditionally right-wing voters who abandoned them for the now-ailing Brexit Party.
In Priti Patel the Tories have a hardline Home Secretary and a desire to open more prisons, crack down on crime, and generally take a dim view of drugs.
The current Treasury Secretary Sajid Javid formerly held Patel’s role, and it was he who famously updated the Home Office rules in November 2018 to ostensibly allow medical cannabis to be prescribed in the UK.
A year on, only a handful of patients have been able to access medicinal cannabis via the health service, and patient groups have reported frustration and anger at what they perceive to be broken promises from the government.
Cause for optimism
At a recent cannabis conference in London hosted by the investment bank Bryan, Garnier & Co, British delegates were mildly optimistic the slow-motion car crash that is Brexit could force the UK’s hand as it seeks to encourage new industries.
Boris Johnson’s circle contains several pro-cannabis individuals from the team he built during his time as London mayor, and he is seen as an unorthodox politician who “makes things happen”.
“He is somewhat libertarian in approach, and you’d have to say of all the candidates Boris is the most likely to try something different; he is unusual, he will try things” said Justin Doherty of Hemington Consulting. “He also has people around him who will push for reform.”
The Liberal Democrats are the only party promising a root-and-branch overhaul of the UK’s drug laws and regulations in their manifesto, and have gone on record in the past saying they will legalise cannabis.
Outgoing Liberal Democrat MP Sir Norman Lamb, a vocal pro-marijuana advocate who has done more to advance the cause than perhaps any MP in recent years, told this author he believes cannabis will be fully legalised within the UK inside five years.
“There may come a situation where the Liberal Democrats are if not the ruling party then the kingmakers, and cannabis legalisation is on the table,” he said.
Lamb is not standing for re-election, however he is likely to continue championing cannabis and will surely be a fixture on the conference circuit in 2020.
Bullish as they are, the Liberal Democrats’ best bet is to win enough seats that they can prop up a minority government, as they did in 2010 when they formed a coalition with David Cameron’s government (and in a way set the referendum ball in motion).
In return for supporting a government, they can push for a fully legalised and regulated cannabis market, with age-limits and controls on strength. The party wants to move drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health, essentially making cannabis a health matter and not a criminal matter.
Labour’s blind spot
Should they do the unthinkable and help the Conservatives into power again, they are less likely to be able to see these left-wing policies through. A potential partnership with Labour is more interesting and unpredictable, but could offer hope for cannabis supporters given how central the NHS has been to this campaign.
The current ruling faction of the Labour party is its most radically left-wing in ideology as it has been for several decades. This does not translate automatically into a soft-on-drugs approach, however, and there is precious little in the party manifesto on cannabis. In fact, there is nothing.
Labour’s position is to invest heavily in public health initiatives, and if reading between the lines, it will focus on harm reduction over locking people up for carrying cannabis.
Good news on the surface, but Labour has floated the launch of a Royal Commission to enact the changes, which is potentially negative news given how long such projects take.
The British press has given an unparalleled number of column inches over to cannabis in the last 18 months, most of it involving the epileptic children whose parents were behind the campaign to have the law changed to allow them to access cannabis.
Traditionally hostile to cannabis, as other drugs, the media has been somewhat supportive of the patient groups and parents fighting for change; the London Evening Standard has its own cannabis campaign, and the UK has been awash with marijuana events.
As if to illustrate the point how how giddy Britain is becoming, a Londoner recently launched a cannabis-infused gin (let’s hope there is no THC in this product however as that is an automatic five-year jail term).
With this in mind, it seems Labour has missed a chance to both clobber the government for its failure to deliver promised reforms and attempt to ease the burden on the NHS by promising support for cannabis research.
Who will win?
Last month, the Conservatives were all but assured of a crushing victory, with polls predicting a huge majority for Boris Johnson to reward his bold, uncompromising pro-Brexit strategy.
In recent days, however, the tide appears to have shifted. The Labour squeeze on the middle ground has appeared later than expected, pushing the Liberal Democrats out of the frame and eating into the Tories’ lead, and the looming threat of a third hung Parliament in four elections is firmly in the frame.
As it is the UK’s third election in four years, and the fourth time the public has been sent to the ballot boxes during that period when including the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, there is an element of voter fatigue, which could also play a factor.
By Friday, the picture will be clearer, and for cannabis advocates there is real hope something positive can emerge from what has been a fraught and ugly campaign.