Drug policies are slowly changing in order to favour harm reduction over a traditional, punitive approach. Across much of North America and Europe, cannabis has been decriminalised or legalised. By comparison, the UK has been far more resistant to change.
Last year, certain cannabis products were made legal for medicinal purposes. However, a barrier of bureaucracy is denying the majority of patients access. On the street, cannabis remains a class B drug, the government having upgraded its classification in 2008 against the advice of their advisory body.
However, while needy patients struggle to get access to it, the UK is growing and shipping so much medicinal cannabis that it is the world’s largest exporter. One government-backed, 18-hectare grow operation hidden in the East Anglian countryside is producing the majority (around 90 tonnes) of the cannabis which Britain exports each year.
Even more interesting is how unknown the operation was. The town of Downham Market is around two hours outside of London but only a few miles from where this industrial grow operation is situated. Residents of Downham Market - and of nearby villages - began noticing a strong smell of cannabis in 2017. The source of the smell became a local mystery.
“It has become a big source of discussion on community Facebook groups,” reported local journalist Steve Shaw. “Sandra Hurrell wrote on the Dereham noticeboard: ‘Been smelling it for 3 days,’ and Su Williams commented: ‘I’m in Mattishall so whatever it is, it’s strong and far spread.’” The article cites an industrial greenhouse owned by British Sugar as a possible source of the smell. Ever diligent, British Sugar investigated and even hired an “odour consultant” to get to the bottom of the mystery.
“The recent harvest of the specialist crop was the first one to come from Cornerways Nursery, near Wissington and with the process generally taking about four to five weeks, there is the potential for strong smells to linger for quite a few days,” explained local Member of Parliament Elizabeth Truss. “An environmental specialist and odour consultant have been engaged to investigate the issues raised and if necessary, investment will be made in appropriate odour control equipment.”
British Sugar’s 18-hectare site, widely cited as the country's largest greenhouse, now had links to the pharmaceutical industry. This, of course, is where the smell was coming from and is where 90 tonnes of cannabis is thought to be produced every year. The site was previously used to grow tomatoes and its owners were previously much more friendly with the press.
British Sugar had quietly posted an update on their website in 2016 stating that they would be using this site to produce a “key ingredient” for a cannabidiol medicine, called Epidiolex, which is sold by GW Pharmaceuticals.
“In 2016, British Sugar was granted a Home Office licence to grow a non-psychoactive variant of the cannabis plant,” a Home Office spokesperson explained. “Victoria Atkins MP declared this fact in Parliament when speaking in a debate as a backbencher."
It has since been reported that the site is also involved in the production of Sativex. An anti-spasticity drug, Sativex contains a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC, the latter being the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. That the UK is the world’s largest exporter of medicinal cannabis was confirmed by a UN report which was made public last year.
All of this makes the reaction of Elizabeth Truss MP seem odd at best. Furthermore, British Sugar’s response and purported “investigation” when the search party reached their doors is equally troubling. Those cynical towards conspiracy theories might have dismissed such claims as a fog of paranoia and weed smoke. However, it goes deeper.
Firstly, that so few people knew this was happening both in and on British soil is - in some ways - no surprise. Since this became public knowledge, the British government has been accused of profiting from a huge double standard which they themselves created.
"The breathtaking hypocrisy of the government allows them to declare in law that cannabis has no medicinal value, whilst simultaneously accounting for nearly half the world's medical and scientific supply," argued Labour MP Paul Flynn. A number of stakeholders also have close ties to the Conservative party, who have traditionally been more rigid on drug policy.
Victoria Atkins - who the Home Office cited as having declared the grow operation in Parliament - is the current UK minister for drugs. However, she recused herself from speaking about cannabis and other aspects of her drugs brief. This is because her husband, Paul Kenward, is the MD of British Sugar and therefore profits from the grow operation.
Furthermore, the primary investor in GW Pharmaceuticals is US-based investor Capital Group where Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband, Philip May, is a relationship manager. With more than a decade of experience at the company, one might safely assume that when Capital Group’s clients profit, Mr May and his wife do too.
Gladly for their investors, business is booming at GW Pharmaceuticals. But according to proponents of medicinal cannabis, Britain is behind the times. "The UK's 50-year drugs prohibition catastrophe of increasing drugs use, deaths, plus vast costs, staggers on," Paul Flynn MP adds.
The change in the law in the UK wasn’t the turning of the tide which many people were hoping for. With a limited number of cannabis products available and suffocatingly tight restrictions on who they are prescribed to, to say that medicinal cannabis is legal in the UK is to speak an untruth. However, around the world, patients benefit from British-made cannabis medicines while Brits themselves are forced to go without.
Certain images are for illustration purposes only