An amazingly successful event happened this week – The United Patient’s Alliance (UPA), a group campaigning for the right to use cannabis medicinally, held a high-profile “Cannabis Tea Party” demonstration at Parliament. Timed to support a private members bill by MP Paul Flynn, it was actually inspired by Paul’s “invitation” a while back for medicinal campaigners to come to parliament and to make such a protest.

This demo was a spectacular success in many ways, not least because of the universally good press coverage it received. Unlike the usual “smoke-out” type demos, pictures from this one weren’t of stereotypical stoners puffing away on tobacco filled joints, which may be an unfair generalisation but is grist to the mill for the likes of the Daily Mail. Instead, coverage centred around impassioned speeches by medicinal users and a very civilised tea party involving activists and MP’s as with this report in the Independent.

Organised by the United Patients Alliance, a group that hopes to legalise the drug for those suffering from chronic conditions, including multiple sclerosis (MS), the Labour MPs Paul Flynn and Tonia Antoniazzi appeared alongside the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.

Sitting at the head of table with cakes and scones containing cannabis, Mr Flynn, who has introduced a private members’ bill on the issue in the Commons, accused the Government of having an “evidence-free” approach to the criminalisation of cannabis.

UPA Cannabis Tea Party

UPA Cannabis Tea Party (Photo from Yahoo finance)

This is all good stuff and the campaign for medicinal cannabis is a very deserving one. Although some wild and unsubstantiated claims are made for cannabis in some quarters, there is no doubt that it can bring relief to a significant number of people, relief pharmaceutical drugs often fail to provide. Sometimes the relief is of a palliative type with some medicinal users claiming “it just helps them cope”. But whatever the reason, people are being denied an effective medicine because of the current legal status of cannabis, something that in a civilised country would normally be regarded as a form of torture.

One of the politicians most responsible for the present rigid prohibition strategy was Tony Blair when he lead the “New Labour” government from the late 90’s.  Keen to ramp up the prohibition of cannabis his government was aware of the huge degree of sympathy the campaign for cannabis as a medicine provoked in the country. As a result it was announced they would allow the development of medicinal cannabis. What we got – or rather didn’t get – was Sativex, a spray form of cannabis oil made from a blend of two strains of cannabis so as to give a pretty much 50-50 dose of THC and CBD. Sativex has been available for use now for over 10 years, but is virtually impossible to get due to the high cost and the refusal of the NHS to pay for it.

So most people in need of medicinal cannabis have been left to fend for themselves, either by growing their own or buying off dealers. Being in medical need doesn’t stop them being arrested and dragged through the courts of course, the holy god of prohibition must always be upheld.

The big reason medicinal cannabis is still banned – the government has it in category 1, drugs with no medicinal value despite all the evidence (an exception was made for Sativex type products) – is because adult use is banned. Medicinal use is claimed by prohibition supporters to be a Trojan horse used by people who just want to get stoned for fun, therefore they decide genuine medicinal users will just have to go without.

This is a big problem for the cannabis law reform campaign. Do we – as I prefer – treat medicinal use as something distinct from general cannabis use, or do we – as others do – claim that all use is in fact medicinal?

The big fear some people have is if cannabis becomes medicalised, it will become the property of “big pharma”with Sativex being the classic example of what happens if we allow that to happen.

My feeling is that the medicinal campaign simply has the moral high ground and that denying ill people the right to pain relief is pretty much barbaric. Therefore is it entirely right and proper that groups like UPA and CLEAR prioritise the medicinal campaign and that the medicinal campaign is disentangled from the adult use campaign. It is, however, vitally important to keep the adult use campaign as a high priority.

Besides the medicinal cannabis effort, we do have some effective but more general anti prohibition / harm reduction campaigns, most notably Transform and LEAP, along with a few others like Anyone’s Child and The Loop. But of the adult cannabis campaign? Well, there isn’t much.

CLEAR is just about the only functioning cannabis campaign in the UK, although they focus more on the medicinal aspect. NormlUK are supposedly the UK outpost of the American cannabis campaign but it’s pretty much dormant with an embarrassingly  ghost website. Rather more active are the many cannabis social clubs springing up around the country, i-smoke magazine who made the video about the UPA demo below and of course UKCIA which is, well, me.

In short, we need a reboot.

Direct action events like 420 day in Hyde park are all important, but they need to be a bit more than just an uncoordinated mass smoke-outs. There is little more damaging to the credibility of the medicinal campaign than the stereotypical stoner pretending his or her use is medicinal as they sit in a park somewhere getting wallied. It’s bad for the medicinal campaign and it’s bad for the adult effort as well, because it just confirms the Trojan Horse argument. Direct action protest is important, it gets people involved and attracts attention, but they need to be well run. If they’re not then to be honest it doesn’t do the adult use campaign much good, the more so if those doing it are kids puffing away on tobacco filled joints.

UPA seem to have found a way forward promoting their cause in a calm, professional way and they deserve our praise for that. Something similar, but distinct, now needs to happen for the adult use campaign. Make no mistake ending the prohibition of cannabis for general use is an important goal, but perhaps we need to think about what that might mean a bit because even if some draconian, highly restricted access for general use were all we could get, all the other uses for cannabis – including medicinal use – would become possible by default. Having fine aims such as demanding nothing less than total freedom more often than not leads to no change and time-wasting bickering.

It’s important to remember that cannabis prohibition is driving a wedge between swathes of the population and the police. Stop and search, arguably vital for preventing violent crimes is hamstrung because of its use against drugs, especially cannabis.  Because of prohibition stop and search is seen (often correctly) by many as no more than police harassment. Imagine how much easier knife control would be if young people were stopped for a weapons search, safe in the knowledge that the baggy of weed isn’t going to be a problem.

Think also of the eye watering profits made by the drug gangs, often turning out a product of dubious quality and using violence and intimidation in the process.

This issue isn’t just about “freedom of choice” and “liberty”. Yes, they are important but they are not the only reason the drug war must end.

Perhaps the strongest argument to be made is for proper, effective regulation of the trade so we would know what is being sold, where it’s sold from and who is selling it. Of course it’s perhaps unwise to just ask politicians for “regulation” without saying how we would want it to work. What would be desirable regulations? What would be undesirable restrictions?

We can prove prohibition has failed, but perhaps we need to think about what it’s failed to do. Prohibition is called “drug control” but of course prohibited drugs clearly are not controlled drugs. So the government wants to “control drugs” as it claims to do, what exactly does it want to control and to what end?

Prohibition doesn’t try to control drugs in all truth, it tries to control people which is why it fails so badly; people don’t like being told what they can do but they do react well to laws which are in their interest, policing by consent is a lot cheaper and more effective than repression.

Legal regulation of the supply side is really the starting point, unless you do that you can’t claim to be “controlling drugs”. But legal regulation doesn’t mean a totally unrestricted free access and promotion of adult use. It could potentially mean a far more effective way of preventing use, but why not if those who want it can get it?

An example of what is possible can be seen from California now, which is on the verge of legalising cannabis and where the health authority has now issued some practical harm reduction information, including how to use responsibly. This is a million miles away from our drug war supporting propaganda site “Talk to frank”.

Cannabis enthusiasts have common ground with those who wish to reign in drug use if they bothered to look for it. If the aim is simply to end the criminalisation of cannabis possession we can find allies in some perhaps unexpected places.

The law reform campaign needs to look beyond the cannabis enthusiasts for support. Ending the horror show of prohibition will mean getting support from a much wider section of the population, some of whom may well not like the idea of getting stoned at all but, like us, see that prohibition simply doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

i-Smoke report on the UPA Tea Party