Tuesday, 12 January 2016

2015 - A Year in Cannabis and Politics

2015 - A Year in Cannabis and Politics

Thank goodness for the cannabis!

United Patients Alliance
Join us/Follow Us/Like Us/Help Us.

This is what I have been doing in 2015 as Political Director of United Patients Alliance.

This was a great year of relationship building and preparation for real change. I've made a lot of friends, and one or two enemies it would seem (Prohibitionist, David Raynes has a file on me apparently!), met a large number of people who think they are important (there's a lot of those in politics!), oh, and quite a few who actually are. ;)

The first and foremost thing about 2015 I want to mention is the friendliness, compassion and support of all of the UPA family. In some ways, personally, it has not been the greatest of years, but it has been a great help to be surrounded by such lovely people. Thank you all.

UPA UK Tour Jan 2015

The year started off with the very first UPA UK Tour which saw us bring our Patients Perspective and Cannabis College events to Cambridge, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham through which we gained the direct support of a number of senior politicians and members of the Criminal justice system, including Tom Lloyd, of course, who now chairs the brand new National Cannabis Coalition and Julian Huppert MP both pictured here with Alex Fraser, Clark French and myself.

Cambridge Patient Perspective Event

You can read a full write up here: United Patients Alliance 2015 UK Tour

Green Party Conference 

From there it was Conference season and UPA were invited to man a stand at the Green Party Conference where we were able to talk at length with Caroline Lucas MP and Natalie Bennett who both restated their full support for what we do and promised that The Green Party would continue to help and support us when they can. We got a very warm welcome from pretty much everybody who came to, or was brought to our stand. Big thanks to Sarah Dougan and Craig Crawford for helping out throughout the event.

Green Party Conference Jon and Craig with Nathalie Bennett

Patient Delegation to Drugs Minister Lynne Featherstone MP

In February, I was part of a patient delegation to meet with the new Drugs Minister, Lynne Featherstone who took over from Norman Baker after his resignation.  
The agenda was deliberately narrow in order to just discuss the plight of medical cannabis patients in the UK and whether a process could be approved for importation of Bedrocan Products for patients. Lynne listened to all patients and was certainly very sympathetic and committed to further investigations but did caution, that she might not be in that position come the General Election. 
Unfortunately she was right, and along with many other Liberal Democrat MPs we had made friends with over the year to date, including Julian Huppert and Norman Baker, she lost her seat in the commons though don't be too upset for her, she is now a Baroness.

Home Affairs Select Committee on Drug Policy

Home Affairs Select Committee - Drug Law Reform
The next major political event was the Home Affairs Select Committee for Drug Policy attended by, not least the Bolivian Ambassador who talked about the damage that Global Drug Policy has done to his country over the years. Ironically, this meeting was on the same day as Bolivia's annual and traditional Coca-Leaf chewing day. International law actually makes every participating citizen of Bolivia a criminal on this day.

I exchanged a few pleasantries with Julian Huppert MP, Tom Lloyd, Prof. David Nutt and Baroness Meacher all of whom hold progressive, intelligent, informed and pragmatic views of drug policy in the UK. It was an honour to meet Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP with whom I don't share too many political similarities, but I have a huge respect for his tireless work in Parliament. I also had the questionable pleasure of meeting our 3 main campaign enemies in Sarah Graham, David Raynes and Neil McKeganey. It seems that along with Conservative Women Mary Brett and Kathy Gyngell, who said she did not attend at is was unfairly unbalanced, that they are the very best that prohibitionists have left to make a case. If that's true, I really don't think we have too much to worry about in that regard.

Though at first it seemed like there were a number of things missing from the programme, such as a specific focus on Medical Cannabis or a section on the financial impact of drug policy as it was focussed on the Harms of drug use. By the end, however, I was very pleased that so much was actually covered or at least touched on in the presentations and discussions.

It was noted that the audience and speakers balance was biased in favour of pro-reform however I see little other in this than merely reflecting the natural bias of the facts, experience and science of the debate as well as a true reflection of public support. It was no surprise that the few individuals who were promoting the status-quo represented the least factual arguments. I would have to say that intelligence won the day, but don't get me wrong, at the end of the day, this committee has little power if the government are not listening. Let's see how it progresses in 2016.

The General Election and Guildford Patient Perspective

Then we started moving into General Election time, which makes getting the attention of politicians particularly difficult as they focus on those things that are and always have been higher priorities to win votes. The other issue is that if 1 politician is invited to an event during this time, ALL candidates must be given the opportunity to speak.
The event that stands out during this time is the Guildford Patient Perspective where we managed to get all but one of the local candidates, not surprisingly, it was the Conservative candidate and eventual winner that did not attend, but it was great to have all of the others show their support for legal access to cannabis therapeutics. 

LibDem Candidate Kelly-Marie Blundell at our Guildford Event

Big thank you to Kelly-Marie Blundell (LibDems) for speaking and for subsequently introducing me to more senior members of the LibDem party, including both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, whose leadership hustings I was able to attend and speak to them about United Patients Alliance and what we are campaigning for and we have the full support of both potential leaders and the entire party as they are now committed to immediate medical access whilst recommending a Royal Commission into general cannabis use and overall drug policy. I have also spoken with Norman Baker and Tom Brake, the LibDem Chief Whip. These conversations along with Tom's Lloyd and the NCC's influence have resulted in a number of new and exciting initiatives to which UPA are wanted and invited, but more on those later.

Of course, then came the General Election which I'm probably not alone in saying was a disaster. Not only did the Conservatives win with a majority but the Liberal Democrats, with whom we had made so much headway had all but vanished, from 50 seats to just 8. I would like to extend congratulations to Tim Farron for becoming Leader of the somewhat smaller Liberal Democrats. I look forward to working more with you and your party in 2016.

Thankfully I have also been communicating with a few Labour Lords and a couple of Senior Labour MPs and we were on the cusp of being invited to meet the commons front bench and be given a stand or the stage at the Labour Party Conference. Unfortunately with the changes in leadership and all their current internal problems they decided to go into a period of navel gazing but promised to re-engage fully in 2016....if they survive?

I'd like to open some doors into the SNP this year. They are all rather quiet on the subject. Not a priority. There are a few SNP MPs who spoke positively during the debate. Anyone from their constituencies that would be willing to write a letter or two - Get in Touch!

Not made too much progress with the Conservatives! Of course!
Though VolteFace has an interesting story worth thinking about: Gove and Prison Reform

National Cannabis Coalition

A potentially game changing initiative was born in 2015 – The National Cannabis Coalition. With former Chief constable, Tom Lloyd unanimously voted in as Chair and supported by board members from across most of the major campaigning groups. This creates an opportunity that I dare to say has never happened before; All (almost) activist and campaigning groups working together and supporting each other to help us all achieve our goals. Even though we might not all agree on what is the right approach, focus and priority or indeed methods – the one thing that I am sure that we can all agree on is Legal access to cannabis for all adults and as a medicine for all. Having such a collaborative organisation with a credible and respected Chair in Tom Lloyd has already caught the interest of a number of media and politicians and helped open a number of doors. More to come certainly from the NCC in 2016.

Guardian - Former Police Chief Chairs National Cannabis Coalition

Product Earth Expo

The next major event was the Product Earth Expo in June. This was a fantastic first event of its kind. It was great to see how the entire hemop and cannabis industry is coming along. The artistry, the engineering and the manufacturing, the genetics, the technology and the horticulture. It was also pretty cool to be at an event where lighters and rolling papers were so cheap too.

Those who stood up to speak did so with so much reason and passion, so much compassion and so many ideas for activism and campaigning. The message is hopeful, it is heartening and the volume is rising.

I'm really looking forward to seeing it become bigger and better in 2016. I hope more people in the UK can see, that a large and wide population of cannabis consumers and enthusiasts is a peaceful, accepting and welcoming community.

Full write up here: Product Earth Hemp Expo

Labour Leadership Hustings - Sky News

When the Labour Leadership Hustings started, what we really needed to know about the potential leaders was their position on cannabis. With a stroke of luck along with relentless posting, tweeting and letter writing, United Patients Alliance had our question asked of the leaders live on Sky during the debate. Happy to say that all of the candidates showed willingness to listen and one or two showed a drive towards change but the very best comments came from somewhat of an underdog at the time but ultimately their new leader in Jeremy Corbyn:

“I don’t think there should be criminalisation of something that is used for medicinal purposes, it is obviously beneficial to many people, particularly those suffering from MS, and I think we should be adult and grown up about this in society and decriminalise.”

I could have hugged him!

Legalise Cannabis Petition and Debate

Of course, no 2015 summary of the Legalise Cannabis Campaign would be complete without referring to the petition which raised nearly 240k signatures and was debated by MPs in Westminster Hall in October.

As with all successful petitions, the Government give their initial response at 10000 signatures: Here is my retort to the Government's initial response.

And a full write up of the actual debate here: Parliamentary Cannabis Debate

Camden Patient Perspective with Baroness Molly Meacher

In preparation for the debate we put on a Pre-Parliamentary Meeting in London with special guest speakers Baroness Molly Meacher, Tom Lloyd and Paul Birch from Help not Harm (Aka: CISTA).
This event was bursting at the seems and appeared in local and national press as well as the whole thing being recorded for the BBC. The footage taken still, unfortunately, is waiting to be aired – watch this space.

Camden Patient Perspective with Baroness Molly Meacher

David Casarett MD - Maidenhead Patient Perspective

In November and with thanks to CISTA/Help Not Harm we had the privilege of meeting David Casarett MD who has just written his new book Stoned - A Doctor's Case for Medical Marijuana. He spoke at our first Home Counties Event in Theresa May's home constituency, Maidenhead. His book can be found here.

He makes the case for how to speak to Health professionals about the benefits of cannabis and stresses the importance of highlighting risks - perhaps even exaggerate them a little. This approach is reflected in his most excellent book about his own personal journey from finding cannabis as a medicine as a joke, to writing a book and training doctors around the world about the medical benefits - It's a great read.

David Casarett - Maidenhead Patient Perspective

Patient Delegation to meet with Nick Clegg MP

UPA Patient Delegation to Meet Nick Clegg
With the assistance of Tom Lloyd and the NCC we were able to take a patient delegation to meet with Nick Clegg MP and his advisors. He is considering supporting a public awareness campaign about the medicinal benefits of cannabis and wanted to hear some powerful stories to give him some broad idea of the current problems that patients face in the UK and give him some anecdotes to use in media interviews and his regular column in the London Evening Standard. I expect to see a write up from him shortly.

Nick endeared himself to the delegation through asking intelligent questions, and his willingness to listen, sympathise and even learn about extracts, growing and various ingestion methods: We even taught him what a "dab" is!

He listened and encouraged everyone:
"This has been a really valuable meeting for me, and I have learnt a great deal about this in just the last hour. Thank you all for coming along today and for your bravery in sharing your personal stories"

Nick, Tim and the other advisers who attended ALL said that they would be in touch, so that's good news for the potential future campaign chances.
He will be meeting with a delegation from Bud Buddies in due course and we definitely have his attention. I am also pretty sure that we have a place at the discussion table for future progress.
Thanks Tom Lloyd for getting the door open and thanks to Clark French, Faye Jones, Jake Barrow, Penny Fitzlyon, Alex Fraser and Keiron Reeves for being brave, coming along and sharing your patient stories.
It is highly likely that we will be doing more of this in 2016 as deeper dives are wanted into cannabis as a medicine - If you would like to be in such a delegation in the future, please get in touch.

Political Engagement

Getting to meet and engage with MPs, politicians and other senior people is neither simple nor quick. You need a thick skin, not mind being rejected and have patience. The best way I have found is to slowly building trust and interest. If you can write to them on an unrelated subject that THEY are interested in. If you can help them by providing information they might need or insights they might be missing. Once you are found to be trustworthy, polite, professional and helpful - You can then get into the subjects you really want and you are so much more likely to get their attention and support.

There is a great, if rare, positive; Through the letters written, introductions made I've had the privilege to meet and discuss my favourite subject and UPAs goals with many cool people, important decision and policy makers and now that those contacts are made, we should be able to exploit them more in 2016. Or, at least I know I am not in their spam folder ;)

Besides those I have already mentioned I have also communicated directly with:

Alex Stevens - Former Conservative Academic Drug Policy Advisor
He can introduce me to their current one, Camilla Cavendish
Prof Les Iversen - Chair of the ACMD and Medical Cannabis Expert
Will be speaking to him further on Psychoactive Substances and Cannabis as a Medicine
Prof Val Curran - Professor of Psychopharmacology - UCL
Working closely with the ACMD and APPG for Drug Law Reform. 
Prof David NuttProfessor of Neuropsychopharmacology
Working closely with the APPG for Drug Law Reform and on the Expert Panel for Cannabis Regulation
Raphael Mechoulem - BioChemist and "Grandfather of Medical Marijuana"
He is hopefully going to introduce me to some of the marijuana researchers in Israel, but frankly, just getting an email from him made me jump for joy - what a privilege! Such a nice chap to answer my emails :)
Lord Brian Paddick - LibDem Lord 
Helping him with Psychoactive Substances Bill. He will be helping me speak to more lords members
Paul Flynn MP - Labour MP
Provided some information for the debate. Will help make inroads into senior Labour MPs
Keith Vas MP - Labour MP
Provided some information for the debate for HASC and for Psychoactive Substances Bill. Will help make inroads into senior Labour MPs
John Redwood MP - Conservative MP
Ok - pretty much totally useless - but did promise to "ask Jeremy Hunt" about rescheduling of cannabis - He did - "The government have no plans to....."

Media Engagement

United Patients Alliance got our name into the media a number of times this year, most notably in The Guardian, Indy, Mirror, London Live, LBC Radio *3, Radio Cambridgeshire and a number of local papers across the UK.

Here are some examples:

Reading Local Press - Cannabis Debate

Guardian - 420 Event

Guardian - Healthy Benefit or Deadly Threat?

Camden Local Paper - Molly Meacher

There is no magic formula for achieving success with the media; Write letters and emails, write blogs and get hits, write more letters and more letters and more letters and more emails. Comment on blogs and on articles..all of them. Write yet more letters. Call journalists. Promise them things, Deliver them. Follow up each letter with a call - In 2 words - Persistence and Passion

I would say that in order to get one letter published in one place, you have to write 20 letters to 20 places - every time! But it IS worth it, because we now have the direct contact and attention of 3 journalists working for national newspapers (Indy, Guardian, Mirror). The hope is that they will "favour" our letters and even request content from us if they are writing a relevant story. Biggest piece of advice: Don't give up, don't get disappointed, keep trying. I have to admit, it does feel good to see your letter get published.

So what about 2016?

Obviously more of the same, but there are 2 or 3 very exciting initiatives about to kick off in Quarter 1 2016:

1: LibDem Expert Group on Cannabis Regulation

Tom Lloyd is on the board of this expert group representing the interests of the NCC and affiliated groups. They will be looking into full cannabis regulation models around the world and produce recommendations for a UK model. We will all have the opportunity to have our arguments heard as this gets going between now and the end of the year.

2: All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform (APPG) 

Co-chaired by Baroness Molly Meacher and Caroline Lucas MP, this group now have over 200 Lords and 30 MPs signed up and are looking to do a deep dive into the rescheduling of cannabis and legal medical access for patients. United Patients Alliance will be working directly with her team and I will be needing more patients, more stories and more details about your cannabis consumption. I will be publishing details on this, and asking for help very shortly. They even want to know about cooperative and home growing models! Yay!

3: Focussed (and funded) Campaign

Through Nick Clegg's office there does appear to be some enthusiasm for a funded and focussed campaign within a short frame (18-24mths). This could be focussed on medical access, or perhaps some form of decriminalisation. Something the NCC believe can be won in that time frame. Ideas welcome. In any case, once we can agree on the details, we may just get an external group of marketeers interested in funding and running it.

So that is what the Political Director of United Patients Alliance has been doing in 2015, but to make 2016 the best year ever UPA need your help: 

We need letter writers (media and MPs), bloggers, social media gurus, website admins, developers and designers, Graphic artists, video makers and editors, researchers, patient stories, idea creators, fund raisers - You name it. In fact no matter what your background, skills, capability and experience - I bet we can make use of your talents and you can be a part of making history with us.

Please get in touch ASAP if you would like to be a part of the best campaign group there is for Legal Access to Cannabis Therapeutics in the UK. 

Jon Liebling – Political Director of United Patients Alliance
Join us/Follow Us/Like Us/Help Us.
Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Website