What Does the Arrival of a New Prime Minister Mean for Cannabis in Britain?

On July 13th, 2016, the United Kingdom appointed a new leader. Theresa May, who has spent the past six years running the Home Office, is now our Prime Minister. What does this mean for cannabis policy?

Well, given that she has run the government department responsible for drug policy for over half a decade, we do have a pretty good idea of what, if any, reform she is likely to be receptive to. And the news isn’t promising.

Throughout her tenure as Home Secretary, May stuck doggedly to the party line that ‘government drug policy is working,’ despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even when the Conservatives were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010-2015, she stood her ground, even when releasing (after months of stalling) a report – Drugs: International Comparators – that slammed the war on drugs, and concluded that the harshness of a country’s drug policy had no impact on the levels of drug use in that country.

After Norman Baker MP – a Liberal Democrat – left the Home Office, it was revealed that key policy recommendations had been stripped from that report on May’s orders. Among them was a proposal to promote the use of cannabis based medicines. So it’s safe to say that, at least in the past, she has not been a supporter of medical cannabis.

Even more worrying is the fact that, back then, she was under pressure from her Lib Dem coalition partners. Since then she’s been on her own. Now she’s running the country. Her stance on drug policy since the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority in 2015 has on the whole been disastrous. She championed the Psychoactive Substances Act, which effectively made every substance on the face of the Earth illegal unless the government had said it was OK. Evidence was clearly not on her agenda, since all of it pointed to this being a terrible idea.

That said, the new law did not criminalise possession, a first for UK drug policy. Indeed, her sidekick Mike Penning told the Commons during debates on the Psychoactive Substances Act that criminalising people simply for using drugs was ineffective and harmful. So that’s a positive.

She’s also been in charge of cannabis policy during a period which has seen huge growth for the UK’s only medical cannabis company, GW Pharmaceuticals. In the past few months, GW have released the results of trials into their newest cannabis-based medicine, Epidiolex. The results were so positive that shares in the company jumped in value by 25%. May has not spoken publicly about the success of this British company, perhaps because it goes against everything she believes in.

 But it can hardly have escaped her notice. The evidence for medical cannabis continues to grow, and has been on that path despite her 6 years of holding back reform in the Home Office. It can’t be ignored forever, however, and now that May has taken up residence in 10 Downing Street, her grip on the Home Office and UK drug policy cannot, in some ways, be as tight.

A lot will depend on who replaces her as Home Secretary, and as yet there has been no indication of who that might be. But whoever it is, it is clear that a concerted effort will be necessary to push the reform agenda onto the new incumbent, and to once again present the evidence. Hopefully, whoever they are, they will be more receptive than Theresa May has been. She’s not going to make change son her own, but with other things now taking up her time, pressure from within her old department could be telling.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, Politics.co.uk and his own blog, www.thedomesticextremist.co.uk


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