In October of last year, Paul Flynn, a member of UK Parliament since 1987, invited anyone interested to come on down to Westminster and break the law.
Flynn, a wiry 82 year old with wispy, windblown gray hair, sat down at the head of a small folding table on the grass outside the halls of Theresa May’s government. As constables at the Westminster Palace gates looked on, Flynn, two fellow MPs, and a few dozen others offered an unusual take on a proper English tea party—one punishable by up to five years behind bars.
“It’s a stupid law—it’s the duty of good people to object and break laws that oppress the sick and the powerless.”
Infused in some of Flynn’s tea, baked into a few of the cakes, and—much more obviously—smoldering in the joints and spliffs between partygoers’ lips, was cannabis.
“I said to people, ‘Come here and break the law,’” Flynn told Leafly in an interview later that month. “It’s a stupid law—it’s the duty of good people to object and break laws that oppress the sick and the powerless.
“We challenged the police to come and arrest us,” he added. “And they didn’t.”
As it is in the United States, cannabis is illegal in the United Kingdom under national law. Possession is punishable by a term of up to five years, and an unlimited fine. These terms are rarely enforced, but they’re on the books nonetheless, and have the ongoing consequences of stunting research and putting the UK out of step of the rest of Europe.
The nonintervention was a bit of a setback. Had police descended upon Flynn and hauled him away—rather than simply ignore the longtime Labour backbencher, and watch as he headed inside Parliament to introduce a law that would legalize medical marijuana in the United Kingdom—the tea party might’ve made bigger waves.
Instead, Flynn finished his cup, did a few interviews, and resumed the longstanding, long-shot effort to legalize medical cannabis.
“The tide of world opinion is moving in the direction of legalizing cannabis,” Flynn told the few colleagues present in the House of Commons later that afternoon. “Cannabis was used as a medicine in this country until 1973… We have forgotten that this is the oldest medicine in the world.”
“Today people are using the drug outside on the green as a food, a drink, a tincture and an ointment, as well as vaping it,” he said, putting the tea party in the official record of Parliament. “I believe that the public and the police—two police and crime commissioners have written to me in support of the Bill—know that the law is unenforceable. It is time for us to take our courage in our hands and say, ‘Let us take this step.’”
The next step is Friday, when Parliament will give Flynn’s bill a second reading. That’s further than Flynn’s previous effort two years ago, and it represents the furthest the UK legalization movement has come in years. But barring a sea change, cannabis won’t go much further than renegade tea parties.
An Outlier in Western Europe
In the past few years, medical cannabis has become available to sick people in much of Western Europe, a development that followed examples set by individual US states. In countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, patients are beginning to access regulated, pharmaceutical-grade medicine. But not the UK. Among its neighbor nations, Britain stands apart in clinging to outright prohibition
As in the United States, cannabis is illegal in the United Kingdom under national law. Simple possession is punishable by a term of up to five years as well as an unlimited fine. Though the full brunt of the penalties are rarely enforced, they’re nevertheless on the books, stunting research and putting the UK out of step with the rest of Europe. (The English have France to thank for not being a total outlier on cannabis, though the French Parliament has acknowledged its harsh policies aren’t working, and lawmakers are moving towards decriminalization or at least lighter fines.)
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Similar to the US Controlled Substances Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the UK classifies cannabis a “Schedule 1 substance,” meaning it has no recognized therapeutic value. Heroin, which killed more than 1,200 people in the UK in 2015, is Schedule II—a stance, in Flynn’s words, “as misleading as Father Christmas.”
To the police, cannabis is a “Class B” drug, with maximum penalties of 14 years in prison for cultivation and 5 years for possession. But because penalties that harsh are rarely imposed, there are far fewer people doing time in British prisons for nonviolent drug crimes than there are in the US.
This, along with frequent stories in the UK press about cannabis in prisons, contributes to a false impression among most Britons that marijuana is effectively decriminalized, said Jonathan Liebling, a former IT professional and the current political director of the United Patients Alliance, the UK’s most prominent medical-cannabis advocacy group and one of the organizers of Flynn’s tea party.
“It is true that I haven’t heard of a patient going to jail for a long time,” said Liebling, who in 2016 was sentenced to a 12-month jail term for cannabis possession, a sentence suspended as long as he doesn’t get in trouble again, “but to say it is decriminalized is ridiculous.”
To date, Parliament has proved as reliable as US Congress in resisting public opinion and scientific evidence about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. In the meantime, many drug-policy ironies familiar to Americans also abound: The pharmaceutical company marketing a cannabis-derived drug in the UK and Europe—and which is close to receiving FDA approval to do so in the United States—is British. Cannabis remains the UK’s most-used illicit substance, feeding an illicit market that attracts criminal organizations that traffic in slaves from Asia.
Meanwhile, English patients seeking access the plant are often forced to go to extreme lengths, breaking the law or even fleeing to the continent.
The Patient Conundrum
Several mornings a week, in the bedroom of a small flat in Hackney, in East London, Jacob Barrow lies in front of a device that looks like a cross between a space heater and the lights at an electronic music show. A reed-thin 30 year old with raven-dark hair, large eyes, and pale skin, Barrow will soak in the device’s infrared rays for a few hours whenever the pain radiating from his stomach becomes too overwhelming to bear.
The infrared machine is a last resort. His normal tonic, which he relies upon every day, is the eight healthy cannabis plants in a tall black grow tent just inside the apartment’s door.
Barrow was born with a diaphragmatic hernia, a rare and serious birth defect that required immediate surgery in order to keep him alive and put his internal organs in their proper order. One of the most common results of the condition is difficulty breathing. To this day, Barrow’s words come between audible wheezes.
In 2007, internal bleeding, the cause of which doctors never identified, necessitated further “experimental” surgery. The results left Barrow’s midsection looking “like a hot-cross bun,” he explained to me. The procedure, he said, also didn’t do much at all to assuage his constant pain.
What follows is a familiar story to many who’ve discovered the healing power of cannabis before their elected officials did. Barrow’s doctors prescribed him a series of pharmaceuticals, including powerful opioid-based painkillers. The pills and patches took care of some of the pain, but only some. They also left him zonked out on the couch or “so sick I was throwing up every few hours” and withering away to a dangerously thin 98 pounds, he said.
Only cannabis offered relief from pain while also enabling him to work, make music, and eat. In short, he told me, the plant let him function.
For Barrow, it was no exaggeration to say cannabis literally kept him alive.
Cannabis is illegal in the United Kingdom in every form save one: a relatively new pharmaceutical called Sativex that still requires special physician approval to receive—permission Barrow didn’t receive until he started a Change.org petition. Finding that dealing with street peddlers was too daunting, Barrow resorted to growing everything he smokes.
Before moving to London, Barrow worked as a bartender in Manchester. He’d tend bar in London today if he could, he told me, and he’s tried—but without fail, he said, employers learn about his health issues, his cannabis use, or both, and turn him away.
In 2015, Barrow made the mistake of mentioning to an National Health Service worker how well cannabis was working for his pain. The report, he said, made its way from the NHS to the public benefits office—and Barrow was kicked off disability.
Not long after, his mother died. He spent his inheritance—all of it—on a year’s worth of rent. The plants became not only a source of medicine but a source of income, and they don’t produce much: a few ounces every couple of months, good for a few hundred quid. That, he explained to me while tucking into his dinner of a £2 frozen pizza, is what he had to live on. (Not long after our visit, just before the tea party outside Parliament, Barrow was able to resume disability. In Britain, services like that are administered locally, and a fresh application to the Hackney council wasn’t flagged for past denials, he explained.)
For Barrow, it was no exaggeration to say cannabis literally kept him alive: housed, fed, making music, and functioning—if occasionally in so much pain he has to run the infrared device. But the laws on the books make him a criminal.
“I’ve exhausted all their methods,” he said. “I’ve tried all the drugs they have to offer. Others work, but this is the only thing that doesn’t make me sick.”
Capturing the Political Moment
The UK government’s harsh stance on cannabis is vastly unpopular. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Britons support medical marijuana access, and among members of Parliament, 58% of members say they’d back legalization for medical use.
That’s a majority—but not enough to change the law. In the UK, lawmaking is a team sport.
All drug policy is set at the national level, by the government in London. Cannabis is regulated not by the National Health Service but by what’s called the Home Office, the law-and-order wing of the federal government. Regions can’t advocate legalization or take steps to allow access, as various US states have done.
Most bills in Parliament that become law are introduced by government ministers. In cannabis’s case, likely changes to policy would come via the secretary in charge of the Home Office. Like football players running plays called by the coach, MPs are expected to stand in line and get behind the bills introduced by their party’s ministers—or oppose bills from the opposition.
Without endorsement or sanction from the official government, so-called “members’ bills” are largely symbolic—just like most of the marijuana-friendly measures in US Congress that end up dying without ever being called for a vote.
Why aren’t members of Prime Minister Teresa May’s Conservative Party swayed by public opinion suggesting medical cannabis would be a popular move? How do they look past demands from researchers, or criticisms like those from Crispin Blunt, the Tory once in charge of the country’s prison system, who called the country’s drug laws “about as intelligent as the prohibition of alcohol in the United States”?
According to Flynn, it’s a simple matter of stigma, coupled with a rabid appetite for Reefer Madness-level stories in the UK tabloid press. The bomber in the terrorist attack at a Manchester concert was a cannabis smoker, reports are quick to mention. After Tony Blair’s Labour government reclassified cannabis from Class B to Class C in 2004, fears over super-potent cannabis—fanned by the press—convinced ministers to move it back into B in 2008.
“I’m afraid Parliament operates on a power that is prejudice-rich, and evidence-free,” the longtime MP said before rattling off statistics.
In 1971, there were fewer than 800 narcotics addicts in Britain. Flynn said figure is flawed—it was likely much higher—but not as high as it is today, with a record number of overdose deaths and an astounding 380,000 people in the UK with documented addiction to cocaine or heroin.
By no metric is prohibition working, Flynn said, and the public gets it. “That argument’s been won,” Flynn said. The challenge now is to find marijuana’s political moment. For now, inspiration is coming from the example set overseas.
“What’s caught our imagination,” Flynn told Leafly, “are the 29 states in America where marijuana is used medicinally.”