Despite being home to the world’s largest cannabis pharmaceutical manufacturer, or perhaps because of it, efforts in the United Kingdom to provide safe access to botanical cannabis for the chronic and terminally ill are stymied, at least for now.
Local activist groups are divided on end goals, but are all closely watching a bill introduced in Parliament last October by Paul Flynn of the Labour Party. Flynn has been leading the charge alone and has faced considerable opposition from within his own party.
Flynn has been outspoken about the hypocrisy he sees in the policy as he has struggled to even get his legislation debated in the House of Commons. He has voiced his frustrations about the lack of safe access for suffering citizens to the press, stating publicly, “I would urge them to break the law, because the law, in this case, is an ass.” Flynn’s bill would move the cannabis plant from Schedule I to Schedule II, an acknowledgement that it does, indeed, have medicinal value.
“It is a simple matter, the law states that cannabis has no medical advantages, which is an absurdity and very bad science. Whereas, in other parts of the law, the government is actually growing cannabis and promoting its use in some forms, and not the most effective forms in my view,” Flynn said.
Formally, No Accepted Medical Value
In the UK, cannabis remains federally illegal and a Schedule I controlled drug with no accepted medical use. If this sounds familiar to Americans, that is because it is by design. In 1961, 186 nations (including both the United States and United Kingdom) signed an international treaty, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, that laid out plans to organize drugs by medicinal value, regulate them accordingly, and work together to ensure conformity of international laws. As a result, the U.S. filled its treaty obligations to create agreed-upon drug scheduling through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, in the UK it was the United Kingdom Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. Inevitably, international scheduling and profit-driven research has tended to deem pharmaceutical patented medicines safer than the plants they are derived from.
UK citizens caught simply possessing could be punished with fines and up to five years in prison. Producers and distributors face up to 14 years if charged. Even though prohibition is still the law of the land, arrests and incarceration for cannabis have declined by 33 and 48 percent, respectively, since 2010, and some local police jurisdictions have decided not to focus their resources on enforcing cannabis laws at all. There also happens to be a large network of cannabis social clubs that have created a safe access program and distribution scheme that is currently serving the demand for botanical cannabis.
One company, however, has the exclusive ability to produce cannabis medicines in the UK and is about to become the first FDA-approved pharmaceutical manufacturer of such medicines in the United States: GW Pharmaceuticals. GW Pharmaceuticals has two drugs approved for use in the UK and other parts of the world now, Sativex™ (nabiximols) and Epidiolex™ (cannabidiol). Unlike predecessor cannabinoid-drugs, like Marinol™ (dronabinol), a drug consisting solely of synthetic delta 9-THC (which was FDA-approved in the US in 1985), Epidiolex and Sativex are alcohol-based tinctures derived from whole botanical cannabis that utilize “the entourage effect” not found in isolates like Marinol. The impending approval of Epidiolex for treatment in drug-resistant epilepsy has hyped GW’s stock, which some believe could grow nearly 50 percent after the approval.
On one hand, when the US starts approving drugs like Epidiolex and Sativex, activists can point to their approval as proof cannabis itself is safe, and that is essentially the argument Flynn is making with his bill now in UK Parliament. On the other hand, getting any drug through the approval processes to market and turning a profit can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and that money doesn’t come cheap. The very nature of proving cannabis is safe is also what may prevent the plant itself from decriminalization: research work is not charity nor is it government sponsored, it is a for-profit endeavor and GW Pharmaceuticals are not the only company looking to profit from the international demand for cannabis medicine. Investment groups in the UK, US and Canada have been clamoring to put their money into competing ventures.
Many UK and US activists are distrustful of pharmaceutical-cannabis companies like GW because they feel the profit-incentive is in direct conflict with the social justice and human rights goals at the core of the medical cannabis movement. Flynn describes his goals as getting medicine to patients first, but also calling attention to the failure of cannabis prohibition as a whole and a call to follow the available science and learn from history.
Flynn introduced The Legislation of Cannabis for Medical Purposes Act (Bill 108) in October 2017. When the bill finally received a reading in Parliament this February, it was effectively filibustered by members of his own party and the second of three readings in the House of Commons was pushed to this June. Flynn attributes the opposition from within his own party to one thing: “cowardice.”
Like the United States, the United Kingdom has a bicameral government. Legislation must be approved by both houses and the head of state before it becomes law. Unlike the US, not all of England’s Parliament are elected. The House of Commons (or, “house of commoners”) is democratically elected and functions much like the U.S. House of Representatives (except the live debates are way better television). Legislation either starts by citizen petition or is brought by a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons. Legislation must then be approved by the royally-appointed House of Lords (like the Senate) before being approved by the Queen. While there are currently about 10 parties represented in Parliament, the majority are either Conservatives (Tories) or Labour Party.
Flynn is a member of the Labour Party and has served as a member of Parliament since 1987 representing the Welsh constituency of Newport West. Flynn has a professional background in science, having worked for nearly 30 years as an industrial chemist, which he says is how he has come to the conclusion cannabis is safe and prohibition is the real problem. He says that beyond “killing people and wasting huge sums of money”, he is motivated to continue pushing cannabis law reform because the UK’s current policies are “especially cruel to those who suffer ailments that cannabis will treat
He says that while he has some support among other Labour MPs, leadership has no desire to even give his bill a fair hearing. He doesn’t go as far as suggesting the government (or individual members) have a financial incentive to continue the criminalization of botanical cannabis while giving the green light to GW Pharmaceuticals to supply the world. He does, however, point to the fact that fellow MP Victoria Atkins is married to the general manager of British Sugar, Paul Kenward, who are the exclusive growers of cannabis for GW. Atkins, a Conservative, also happens to be the UK Drugs Minister and works directly under the Home Office (the UK equivalent of the DEA). British Sugar was historically a part of the British government and although they are a private company today, the close ties to Parliament remain.
On a side note, here is an enlightening video of Victoria Atkins having a friendly public discussion with the United State’s “quarterback of the anti-legalization movement”, Kevin Sabet: https://youtu.be/xunngQDv9SQ
Despite the uphill climb, Flynn, an octogenarian with no other political ambitions, says he will continue pushing forward with this issue because someone must take a stand against “politicians acting in blind denial of the facts and evidence.”
In the UK, Parliament will consider for debate issues brought by citizens if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures for the issue. In 2015, a petition to fully legalize cannabis received 203,000 signatures, at the time the second-highest ever for a citizen petition. Parliament refused to debate it.
The Elephant in the Room
“In the UK, this money, this backing and this manipulation has really split the activist scene and caused a lot of distrust between a lot of people and a lot of organizations,” said Alistar Burrell. Burrell adds that most groups are suspecting the others of being more invested in “money and positioning” rather than simply changing a law together because they think it is wrong.
Burrell, an IT professional by trade, also runs the Bristol cannabis social club, organized by the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC). The UKCSC operates similar to early US medical collectives and operate outside of the law. They are an organized network of regional clubs that bring cannabis consumers and growers together to “make sure everyone gets what they need”. For medical patients, they send product to a Spanish testing lab to screen for pesticides and measure potency. (No, he is not worried that Brexit will hinder this). Unlike the UPA, the UKCSC takes both a medical and social justice approach, advocating for decriminalization and a citizen’s right to grow their own.
He says enforcement of cannabis laws in the UK vary by region and police force, but in Bristol, a city of artists and musicians, police are no longer prioritizing cannabis crimes. While Burrell generally supports Flynn’s legislation, he acknowledges that even if it passed, the clubs would remain outside the law. He also feels it doesn’t have support in Parliament largely because of financial interests in companies like GW Pharmaceuticals.
“I don’t trust any of of these guys because they are purely looking at the money to be made. The problem with big business is once you start spending money, you want that to come back again,” said Burrell.
“It’s utterly fucked,” said Tom Lincoln, a London-based actor, cannabis patient and activist. “How should we wait months and months and months for the government to even decide they are going to hear this, and all the while we labor on under [a law that states cannabis has] no medical benefit and no one is licensed to sell it? Whereas, the big elephant in the room is GW Pharma.”
Lincoln recently started volunteering with one of the more prominent cannabis groups, the United Patients Alliance (UPA), though he supports and works with activists across various groups. The UPA have a professionally-branded campaign and media presence, but do not promote the right to grow at home, eschew acts of civil disobedience and have taken a somewhat controversial stance of embracing GW Pharmaceuticals.
The UPA is the most organized group supporting patients, but activists outside of it point to big business ties on the group’s board that they feel drive its motivations. In 2017, they added a new trustee and small-time donor, Gavin Sathianathan, CEO of Forma Holdings.
Forma has a partnership with Oxford University to study and produce cannabinoid-medicines in much the same way as GW Pharmaceuticals. Forma, which has offices in London and Los Angeles, was formed and financed through partners at Kingsley Capital. Forma also has a separate fund, Anthos Ventures, which includes investments in most of the operations affiliated with California cannabis magnate Steve D’Angelo: Harborside Health Center, FLRish and The Arcview Group. Also under Anthos is Altai Brands, which include Dixie Elixirs and Foria cannabis lube. They maybe best remembered for the meat platter served on a mostly-nude model at an after party for the 2016 MJBizCon in Las Vegas.
So, while the UK may be the world’s biggest producer of cannabis pharmaceuticals and among the biggest financiers of the global industry, consumers and patients are stuck outside Parliament begging for mercy.
Pharmaceutical Extracts versus Botanical Access
Despite being an untested theory, the theory of pharmacologicalism has prevailed in Western medicine. It goes like this: isolated or synthesized patentable plant compounds are safer than the plants they come from. It may sound crazy, but the entire drug scheduling and drug approval system used in the United States, the United Kingdom and hundreds of other countries, is based on this false but profitable premise.
As this unproven ideology prevails, patients suffer. In speaking of his inspiration to bring about the schedule change in the UK, Paul Flynn points to the case of Alfie Dingley, an epileptic boy who suffers over 150 seizures daily. The Home Office has said they would consider allowing Dingley legal access to cannabis medicines, but have yet to make a decision. The Home Office has previously denied the Dingleys, and they may have to wait for the legal version, produced by GW, to be approved. Still, Flynn is pushing for the approach to follow the science.
“There isn’t any rational reason left to deny cannabis is a medicine,” Flynn said.