31 Mar Matt Smith: But At What Cost? Will Legal Cannabis Lose Its Soul?

Matt Smith

Matt Smith

Matt Smith supports the legalisation of cannabis for recreational and medicinal use on libertarian and scientific grounds. He works within the IT and Security industries.

The recent events in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington would appear to signal a turning point in the war on drugs. The prohibition experiment of the last 70 years has failed as spectacularly as the decade long American experiment in alcohol prohibition. But, with legalisation tantalisingly close, maybe a thought should be spared as to what the nature of “Cannabis Culture” will be once it becomes legal.

The widespread use of cannabis throughout its prohibition has led to the development of several cannabis focused subcultures. Whilst the specifics of these cultures, such as clothing styles, music, artistic preferences or even literature may change over time, the image of the cannabis user remains, at the core, the same. The “stoner” is recognisable to most people, whether it is Cheech and Chong or Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. The chilled-out, slightly scruffy, regular user has since at least the ’60’s been the public face of cannabis. In my experience the portrayal has a tendency to be reasonably true. The people I have met who consider cannabis to be a main part of their lifestyle would fit well into this image. They are also relaxed, creative, generous and progressive, but with a rebellious, counter-culture streak, distrusting of big business, government interference and lately, Big Pharmaceuticals. The war on drugs has amassed an enormous body count over the years. It is entirely possible that “The Stoner”, the cannabis culture soul through the prohibition years, may be lost through the war on prohibition.

The deterioration in traditional cannabis culture can be seen in the home of European progressive attitudes to cannabis. I first visited Amsterdam in 2003 and found it to be an incredibly friendly city. In both the central commercial area and extending into the outskirts of the city there were numerous independent coffeeshops. Each one was welcoming and had an individuality and character that despite the fact that they had to make money, seemed to focus on giving the customer an enjoyable experience at an obvious cost to making big profit. Cheap flights had been available for a few years, opening up Amsterdam to increasing numbers of British tourists seeking to experience legal cannabis, so there was ample opportunity for the coffeeshop owners to make money. Back in 2003, there was a coffeeshop chain, The Bulldog, but there were only a handful spread through the city.

I visited Amsterdam next in 2007 and by this time, there were noticeably more of the Bulldog chain. Independents still existed, friendly and full of character, but by my most recent visit in 2012 there was a distinct change to the cannabis culture in the city. Immediately obvious was the reduction in the total number of coffeeshops. Of those that remained, there were very few independents. The majority, particularly around the red light and commercial districts, bore the Bulldog brand. Although attempts had been made to maintain a degree of individuality, the generic branding was clear in much the same way as it is with Starbucks or Weatherspoons. In stark contrast to my previous trips was the increased acceptance of cannabis use outside of the coffeeshops altogether. In 2003 it was rare to see people walking around or relaxing in the parks smoking. By 2012 this was commonplace. In Amsterdam, 40 years of relative legitimacy had led to near full acceptance of cannabis in the mainstream, but the culture had lost its soul.

Despite legalisation in Colorado and Washington, many will continue to regard California as the spiritual home of American cannabis culture. Over the last few weeks the reality TV/documentary “Weed Country” has been showing on The Discovery Channel in the UK. The series follows several members of California’s semi-legal medical marijuana industry based around the “Emerald Triangle” in north California. This is where most of the state’s Cannabis is grown. Amongst these is the former owner of Vallejo’s largest cannabis dispensary,Matt Shotwell, who is trying to rebuild his business following a police raid. He is neither a grower, nor would it appear a medical user, despite referring to his smoking as “medicating”. Shotwell is a middle man, effectively a legitimised dealer and if the editing is to be believed, he is also completely money oriented with little regard for either those on the cultivation side, or the patients. His position within the industry is openly despised in one scene by the veteran of the California scene, B. E. Smith and his tech-savvy protégé, Nate Morris. Together with the other growers on the series, Smith and Morris are contrastingly shown as compassionate towards the patients, running the continual risk of prosecution and incarceration to get what they feel to be essential medicine into the hands of some very sick people. It is understandable that legalisation will bring about changes in all areas of the cannabis industry, but the pure capitalism of Matt Shotwell seems distinctly out of sync with the culture of cannabis use.

Back in the UK those needing medical cannabis have at the moment only one realistic route to take. GW Pharmaceuticals currently hold the only license to develop medical cannabis solutions and in a similar fashion to Shotwell, they appear to be interested in making money, despite the potential cost to the end user, the patient. Whilst it is the NHS that pays the extortionate financial cost (around 10-20 times the price of a similar dosage of herbal product on the black market), the reluctance of GP’s to prescribe an expensive treatment such as this ultimately hurts the patient. The current prohibition only compounds the situation to the patient. Difficulties in getting a research license mean that few other companies are willing to take the risk, allowing GW Pharmaceuticals to potentially secure patents that will generate control and income for the company long into the future.

It is essential within all industries to safeguard your developments and intellectual property, so the patenting of cannabis products and processes will happen in the UK. The US government already holds US Patent number 6630507 which relates to the use of cannabinoids for amongst other things, the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Both the UK and US Governments official position is that cannabis has no medicinal value, yet the US holds at least one patent and the UK has licensed a company that will presumably be seeking to patent developments it makes in the future. If Sativex, chemically identical to herbal cannabis, is an example of the future of cannabis medicines, then all of this seems an unnecessary and expensive complication for a product that can essentially be grown in a pot in the back garden.

With Colorado and Washington now ending their prohibition, the next few years will certainly prove interesting. The 40 year old recreational scene in Holland has definitely commercialised, and Big Pharmaceuticals are the only medical option for the UK. With legal cannabis now available in the home of Big Oil, Big Tobacco and excessive commercialisation, it would not be unexpected if Big Cannabis became the American model and so by extension, the western model. In some ways it may be a necessity. As Professor David Nutt and many others have shown, alcohol and tobacco are of far greater risk to both the individual and society than cannabis, yet they are legal and although restricted somewhat, they are openly accepted within mainstream society. Both these industries are dominated by multinational corporate entities with enormous amounts of lobbying capability. For cannabis to enjoy the same legal, socially acceptable position as smoking and drinking, it could be essential for the industry to take on a suit and tie, big business face, and leave its “Che” T-shirted and tie dyed soul in the past.