Over 50 people were arrested in Hyde Park during a pro-cannabis rally in April, mostly for smoking weed, which seems like a staggering waste of police time and resources particularly during a time of government austerity.
So it's probably the perfect time for the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol (Cista) party to stand at the 2015 general election. As part of a series profiling smaller parties in the election, IBTimes UK spoke with Cista to find out more.
Who are you?
My name's Paul Birch, I'm the founder of Cista. My background is internet entrepreneurship.
What is Cista?
Cista is a single-issue party standing in the general election campaigning for evidence-based drugs policy in the UK rather than the historical, quirky, whatever we had 300 years ago, drugs policy. That's our single issue and we're calling for a Royal Commission into drugs policy reform.
We're trying to raise the profile and to see if we can get it to happen sooner rather than later. It's definitely going to happen, guaranteed, because it's already happening in America. And it's obviously moving around the world. It's happening in Uruguay. It's happened in Spain to a fair extent, they've got a regulated cannabis market over there. Cannabis social clubs. We just want it in the UK.
How many candidates have you got standing?
It's looking like we're going to have just over 30. We've got three or four in Northern Ireland and we've got a party election broadcast in Northern Ireland. We may hit 10 in Scotland, in which case we'll get a Scottish broadcast. We've got one candidate in Wales and the rest are in England, mostly in central London constituencies.
(Update: At the time of publishing, Cista had eight candidates in Scotland and four in Northern Ireland. There are 32 candidates in all standing in the UK.)
Although you're a single-issue party, what are your top three priorities within that? Presumably the Royal Commission is one of them.
Yeah, the Royal Commission. We want medical cannabis. Bizarrely, in some kind of 1984-esque style way, Theresa May has stood up and said cannabis is not a medicine.
It's a medicine in Israel and has been for 20 or 30 years. It's a medicine in the US. It's got clear medical research. She's licensed it to Sativex to use it as a medicine. Then she stands up and says it has no medical purpose. That's extremely bizarre. What does that tell us about our democracy? It flies in the face of evidence and wants to say whatever it wants to say.
We've met a lot of people who suffer from it not being a medicine. They can't get it prescribed, and struggle to get hold of medical grade rather than street grade cannabis.
We're still working through how big is each use case, but there are lots and lots of applications. But one we're very familiar with from a lot of our candidates who are in that situation is that they've been prescribed locally by their doctor opiates, but opiates after a week really ruin people's lives.
They're fine for a post-op thing, but if you've got lifetime pain they're a disaster. They ruin your personality. They destroy your personality. Whereas cannabis has the same painkilling effects for lots of people, but allows them to function as a pretty regular person. So we're campaigning for that.
And I guess we're also campaigning to get up to a billion pounds in tax raised from a tax most people are willing to pay. Whereas normally with tax people are desperately begging not to pay it. Well I'd say most people are quite keen to pay their cannabis tax.
It's not just the medicinal side of it though, is it?
Absolutely. It's the recreational side – and the medical side on cannabis in particular. So on the recreational side, the problems we've got at the moment are that there are synthetic cannabis products out there produced by criminals because some of them are technically legal, but are just being produced out of a lab. Whereas people could consume a product that has been around for several thousand years, which is exceptionally safe compared to other recreational drugs.
But people are being pushed into consuming these synthetic cannabis products. And also, although the cannabis on the streets is not the most safe type of cannabis out there, it's still a lot safer than alcohol. Even though it's a street cannabis. But it's not as safe as some types of cannabis.
So we would suggest when they do the Royal Commission they look at what types of cannabis they want to make legal and what they want to regulate and tax differently, like they do with vodka versus shandy. Well, you can do the same with cannabis. To push and incentivise people into certain types of cannabis.
What about other drugs?
Well there are other drugs and there are problems with those as well. That would be something the Royal Commission would need to decide. There's a whole lot of conversations you could have about that. But I think for most people the rationale tends to go, if it's a drug significantly safer than alcohol, why wouldn't you legalise it and regulate it for recreational purposes?
I generally don't think most of the mass market is looking for an infinite choice of recreational drugs, but I think they would like a choice beyond alcohol, really, that's legal.
A small choice out there for people to participate in would be welcomed.
What sort of impact are you hoping to make?
Well where we're standing we're looking for 1% of the vote, that would be our target. We're looking to get coverage, like in your publication. And we're just looking to carry on after the election. We're an organisation that allows people to come forward under a banner that is, shall we say, respectable, because you've got the respectability of a political party, which helps people feel confident and comfortable that they're doing something that people aren't going to look at in a funny way.
It's an organisation people can get behind. And if it's not resolved in the next Parliament, then we'll be looking to field candidates in 2020 and given we've got a heck of a lot more time, by a factor of about 20, we should be able to field well over 100 candidates across the UK.
I get the sense that the tide's turning on drugs policy the world over. So how long is it going to be before we're heading down to the doctor for cannabis pills or the pub for a pint and a joint?
Cannabis medicine could happen very quickly. It's available, technically, in many European countries already. More so than recreational cannabis is. So I'd say medical cannabis is very likely to come first. There's something that's been formed recently called the United Patients Alliance, which is a really strong user-led, user-founded organisation that's campaigning strong and hard to get this done.
There are different versions of legalising cannabis from a medical view, but the easiest version is that people should be able to get it prescribed by their doctor.