The Flowering of the U.K. Underground
Medical cannabis reform in the United Kingdom is coming too slowly to fulfill demand from consumers and from patients, who must make do on what the underground market provides.
Try to imagine a world in which cannabis as North Americans know it — green trees, sticky flowers, colas caked with trichomes — did not exist. Not in a store (this is before legalization) and not from the connection in your phone, or in anyone else’s.
Now try to imagine attempting to get high there.
Picture this dystopia and then picture as your lone cannabis option — eighths of “soapbar hash,” blocks broken off of “nine bars” (just what it sounds like: a nine-ounce bar) “with bits of plastic and all sorts of other nasty extras mixed in,” as @merlins.beard_ on Instagram, recalled — and you have an idea of an average cannabis user’s life in the United Kingdom through the 1990s and well into the 2000s.
“This is all the common man could get back in the day until actual flower appeared,” the man behind Merlin’s Beard, a London-based photographer who is tightly plugged into the scene and who did not wish to reveal his real name, told Cannabis Now recently.
To say times have changed, dramatically, is an understatement. With the right connections, a head in London can now access flower that, according to the photographer, is better than the tourist-level offerings in Amsterdam and even Barcelona. And, in a comment that is sure to rankle growers running lights a world away, he even deemed it “as good as anything from Cali.”
The Flow of Flower
U.K. cannabis consumers can also access cannabis that is absolutely as good as anything from California — because it is from California. According to Instagram entrepreneurs as well as authorities, there is a steady flow of cannabis to the U.K. from legal American states on the West Coast. If this sounds at all morally questionable, consider: According to police, as well as a lengthy investigation in the Guardian, “most” illicit cannabis sold on the street in the U.K. is grown by organizations that traffic humans into the country from overseas, who are then forced to live lives of imprisonment and isolation, tending to growhouses.
Having an alternative to all that, then, is important. For that to happen, more important than the flow of flower is the flow of seeds and clones. These move in the usual ways: A few seeds from Amsterdam popped, a cut cloned and mothered, cut again and shared with friends or traded with the like-minded.
In this way, British cultivators and aficionados have built up a strain library on par with their counterparts in more permissive countries. These days, “the genetics we are open to is unreal,” Merlin’s Beard said. “The U.K. is creating some flowers up there with the best cultivators in the world.”
“If you know a grower in the U.K. or [have] access to someone who knows a good grower, then you are going to be smoking weed as good as Cali,” he promised. “Obviously, we can’t do what you Americans are doing… but we can take the cut and cultivate professionally to the highest standards.”
“It’s literally gone from people being terrified and growing in a wardrobe to people setting up warehouse grows and five-bedroom houses and then selling their amazing work on social media apps,” one cultivator, active on Instagram at @StickyIckyPharms, said.
This bright spot of progress, courtesy of risk-seeking seed fanatics, international Instagram-era cannabis smugglers, bold underground growers and enough citizen smokers willing to flout the law and join a growing number of “social clubs,” was a long time coming.
And all of it is an exception to what’s been a fairly constant prohibitionist rule.
Even after significant advances in medical-cannabis policy reform in the past year — and despite a U.K.-based drug-maker, GW Pharmaceuticals, marketing cannabis-based medicines worldwide and operating a massive cannabis farm in the southeast of London in order to produce them — the United Kingdom remains one of the more restrictive and punitive countries in Western Europe for cannabis.
And though cannabis remains exceedingly popular and users more confident and open, the U.K. also offers one of the only recent examples on record where authorities decided loosened marijuana restrictions were too much and rolled them back. Because, you see, reducing criminal penalties on the world’s most popular illicit drug simply “sent the wrong message,” as former Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair explained in 2005.
The improvement on scrap-laden brick hash highlights just how much further the country has to go to catch up to the United States and Canada. The top-shelf flower enjoyed by the well-connected or the wealthy heads is simply not affordable or available at all to most British cannabis users. This includes patients, who have been dealt arguably the cruelest hand.
Want a Prescription? Don’t Bother
As of Nov. 1, legal medical cannabis has been available to anyone in the United Kingdom with a prescription from an “expert doctor.”
Sajid David, the U.K.’s Home Secretary and head of the national-level ministry that regulates law-enforcement and drug policy in the country, granted this concession after a successful shame campaign, triggered when customs officials seized an epileptic boy’s non-intoxicating cannabis oil last June.
Eventually, the U.K. could see national-level legalization like Canada’s — at least, that’s the promise of a subsequent “review” of cannabis scheduling, in accord with the latest and best science that is currently underway.
All of this is significant progress, and light-years beyond the hopes of most activists. In early 2018, medical marijuana advocates were still staging protests outside of Parliament. Now, they’re taking meetings with ministers and MPs. And yet none of this is good enough, as patients and activists will tell you.
For starters, they say there are very few “specialist” doctors willing to write prescriptions. Those who will charge hundreds of pounds for the paperwork — or “more than [the cost of] an ounce on the black market,” said Greg de Hoedt, a prominent activist and chairman of United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs, a loose network of underground sharing and smoking societies.
De Hoedt suffers from Crohn’s disease, a debilitating condition that would qualify nearly anyone in the United States (where medical cannabis is available, at least) to access the drug. According to de Hoedt, he went to see his Crohn’s specialist in December for a prescription and was denied.
This is a common story, and it gets worse. Pain specialists in the National Health Service, the U.K.’s vaunted (and, from an American perspective, fully preferable to exclusively market-based healthcare) public healthcare system, have gone as far as to post signs in offices instructing patients to not bother asking for a cannabis prescription.
In sum, “nothing has changed for patients,” said Sarah Alegra, a Londoner in her 20s who uses cannabis for a variety of ailments, including pain relief. “I don’t even feel less criminalized for what I do.”
Those without a connection to a grower or a club also take on significant risk by cultivating cannabis for themselves. With few exceptions, police are eager to bust a cultivation operation, no matter how small.
“Just one plant is a risk,” StickyIckyPharms wrote in an email. “The scale that we are doing it on is a MASSIVE RISK.”
What About the Children?
Police forces often openly encourage citizens to report cannabis smells emanating from a neighbor’s flat, activists say, and news of the latest bust is a regular feature in U.K. print media — which itself is openly and shamelessly encouraging reefer madness.
A recent front-page story in the Daily Mail claimed a “shocking toll” of “children as young as 9” among the 3,400 British citizens under 19 admitted to hospitals with marijuana-“triggered” health concerns last year. And a prominent columnist for the same paper recently used his pulpit to declare, without data, that the “real cause” of the spate of knife violence in the U.K. is — what else? — cannabis.
The tenacity and zeal with which prohibition is clinging to British society will be familiar to Americans who catch themselves waxing nostalgic for any “good old days” of outlaw cannabis culture — and will hopefully disabuse them of it.
At the same time, criminal penalties for cannabis cultivation, possession and even sales are far less strident in the U.K. than in the U.S., where a Mississippi jury recently slapped an Oregon man driving through the state with his own supply (and no evidence of sales) with an eight-year prison term.
Compare that to the 12-year term handed down by a U.K. court for a crew that smuggled in an estimated 20 metric tonnes, the penalty for the biggest-ever import of cannabis into the country.
Legality vs. Morality
So why grow at all? The answer is obvious even to the cynic and the skeptic: This is what has always been done everywhere cannabis is illegal. For StickyIcky and others like him, the answer is moral.
The underground London cultivator makes available CBD-rich edibles, THC tinctures, and full-spectrum plant oil — in other words, exactly the kind of offerings extremely sick patients the world over need in order to find relief from a spectrum of ailments: Cancer, pain, Crohn’s. The works.
“As we all already know,” he told us, “cannabis heals.”
TELL US, which country’s cannabis culture are you curious about?
Originally published in Issue 37 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE