Blazing a trail: as legal cannabis goes global, will Britain be next?

New laws in California and Canada, plus a high-profile UK medical case, have made it safer for nations to come out of the green closet

Three major developments in June, including the case of a British boy with severe epilepsy, are likely to accelerate international acceptance of marijuana.

On 11 June, Charlotte Caldwell landed at Heathrow airport with her 12-year-old son, Billy, with a six-month supply of cannabis oil, the most effective medicine she’d found for her young child’s epilepsy. She declared the medicine, which she’d legally bought in Canada, to British border officials, who confiscated it, despite Caldwell’s pleas.

Unable to take his medicine, Billy was admitted just a few days later to hospital in “life threatening” condition. Sajid Javid, the home minister, was forced to issue an emergency license to allow doctors to treat Billy with cannabis oil.

The case sparked an outcry, and Javid called for a review of the UK’s medical marijuana policy which recommended that clinicians should be able to prescribe medical marijuana. Inevitably, talk about full legalization has followed. According to recent polls, 82% of Britons support legalizing medical marijuana and 51% support full legalization.

Then on 19 June, Canada’s parliament voted to become the first G7 nation to fully legalize, with – legalization day scheduled for 17 October.

Afterwards, the senator Tony Dean told reporters: “We’ve just witnessed a very historic vote that ends 90 years of prohibition.”

In an email, Peter Reynolds, the president of UK cannabis reform group Clear, called Billy’s situation has led to “the most dramatic shift in drugs policy probably since [the Dangerous Drugs Act] of 1925”.

Rounding out the month, on 25 June the US Food and Drug Administration approved, for the first time, a drug derived from the marijuana plant. The UK firm GW Pharmaceuticals invented the drug, Epidiolex, to treat two kinds of severe childhood epilepsy.

Relaxing attitudes in the US, and legalization in several states have made it safer for other nations to come out of the green closet. Despite the drug’s goofy reputation, the subsequent shows of of interest demonstrate deep affinity for this plant in much of the world.

Marijuana plants at a facility in Alberta, Canada.
Marijuana plants at a facility in Alberta, Canada. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Canadian medical marijuana companies now export product to countries including Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Germany. Canadian exports also supplement Italy’s only legal supply, cultivated by the military.

Israel, a leader in bio and agricultural technology, could emerge as a research hub. But the government has been slow to allow export permits, forcing companies to look elsewhere. According to an unconfirmed report in Israeli media, Donald Trump called the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to object to the industry.

Colombia, a nation ravaged by decades of drug-related wars, now seeks to become a growing center.

Two cafes opened in Paris to sell CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in Epidiolex, which many users believe has other healthful properties. Police raided the cafes and shuttered them.

In China, there is deep suspicion of psychoactive drugs. Opium addiction is associated with the country’s “century of humiliation”, the period which began in 1839 with the loss of the first opium war and lasted until Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic in 1949.

But the country is emerging as a “hemp superpower”, with Chinese farmers cashing in on the non-psychoactive cannabis crop, which textile factories buy for its fiber. (Meanwhile, Chinese communities in several North American cities have vocally opposed dispensaries.)

Greece and Jamaica have both legalized medical cannabis and are considering cannabis tourism to boost their economies. Jamaica has also legalized it for Rastafarians, the only recent cannabis law I’m aware of which references religious use.

Developments like these around the world point to a renaissance, a chance to exploit this very exploitable plant as never before. And despite warnings from opponents, legalization has not provoked a crisis of stoned driving or led to more use by teenagers. By contrast it has proven to have extraordinary benefits. Just ask Charlotte Caldwell.

I suspect however, it’s too early to declare victory. Marijuana is a known entity. But mass-market marijuana is far more potent and accessible than anything most parts of the world have encountered before.

A relaxing of attitudes toward cannabis is taking place around the world.
A relaxing of attitudes toward cannabis is taking place around the world. Illustration: George Wylesol

Marijuana is famously well-tolerated, but that’s not the same thing as safe. Legalization is a massive experiment, like the introduction of social media, on the human brain. And as with social media, we’re only going to begin to understand the consequences after a few years.

Cannabis could yet provoke an acute public health crisis. If there is one, my guess is it will involve dangerous pesticides or use by pregnant women.

But even if there’s no emergency, widespread access to cannabis will alter life in ways we don’t yet understand. To realize this, one only has to spend a night getting high with a few friends.

Today countries all over the world are canna-curious, but so far it’s only in a few US states where a customer can legally enter a store and choose between a wide array of legal products. Simultaneously, it remains very difficult for US scientists to pursue marijuana research.

The US combination of permissiveness for consumers and restrictions on research, seems designed to maximize the potential harms of legalization and minimize the benefit to society.

So watch closely. It’s a chance – there have been a few recently – for other nations to capitalize on America’s mistakes.


Alex Halperin

The GuardianTramp

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