CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform President Peter Reynolds speaks to MCN about lobbying, policy and the flaws of CBD Novel Foods regulation.
CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform, the UK’s largest membership-based cannabis policy group, campaigns for legislative reform on cannabis in the UK. CLEAR President and law reform campaign veteran Peter Reynolds tells MCN about the body’s successes so far, the evolution of the UK’s policy on medical cannabis use, and the intrinsic flaws in subjecting CBD to Novel Foods regulation.
What is the history of CLEAR and what are its aims?
CLEAR started in 1999: we grew out of a number of previous cannabis campaigns based around Norwich. We were initially called the Legalise Cannabis Alliance; and through the ’90s and early 2000s, we ran what was essentially the only cannabis campaign of any real significance in the UK.
I personally have been involved in cannabis campaigns since I was a teenager in the ’70s going on marches, but eventually, having had a career as a medical journalist, I became interested in the fact that more and more real evidence about cannabis as a medicine was coming out. In the early 2000s I decided I wanted to get involved; in 2010, I joined the board of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, then in 2011 I was elected as leader.
In addition to working as a medical journalist, I had career experience in advertising and marketing; and I very much felt that the whole strategy and presentation of the campaign needed updating in order to become more professional. Everything was put out to a ballot; and with the agreement of the members we decided to change our name to CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform – we wanted to move away from the word legalise, because it’s very much misunderstood – and we did a complete redesign. We became the UK’s first professional cannabis law reform campaign: prior to this, cannabis campaigns were not being done in a way that was effective or conducive to speaking with the right people in order to change minds.
How far has medical cannabis come in the UK since CLEAR was set up?
I first gave evidence in Parliament on the subject of medical cannabis in 1983, which was when the first ever Home Affairs Select Committee was established and set up an inquiry into what were called dangerous drugs; and I’ve given evidence to every parliamentary inquiry since then. Since we relaunched as CLEAR in 2011, there’s been a dramatic turnaround: we’re not claiming all the credit by any means, but in 2011, probably fewer than five MPs were openly supportive of reform. There are now hundreds – probably a majority of MPs in Parliament support reform, though whether they would actively vote for it or not is a different matter – and there is very widespread support for medicinal cannabis reform.
In 2018, finally, the law governing medicinal cannabis was reformed; and although in many ways the results have been very disappointing, the UK now has the most advanced and flexible system for prescribing cannabis in the world.
There’s no restriction on what conditions it can be prescribed for; there’s no restriction on what form of cannabis can be prescribed, except that it can’t be smoked; and nowhere else in the world is there that degree of flexibility for proper prescribing by doctors. The trouble is that doctors aren’t taking it up: that’s a matter of medical education, because for the last 60 years doctors have been told that cannabis is an extremely dangerous drug with no medicinal benefits; and we can’t immediately turn that around in a couple of years, but we’re on the right path. I think in five years from now, GPs will be prescribing cannabis, it will be much more readily available and there will be a choice of products; we’ll be as close to where everybody wants us to be as it’s possible to imagine.
What barriers remain for patients in the UK?
There is still a stigma around cannabis, because unlike other medicines it is very widely used as a recreational drug. One of the most telling scientific studies in recent years showed that, as a recreational drug, cannabis is 114 times less likely to cause death or serious harm than alcohol; although getting that generally understood and accepted is still difficult. I think it is fundamentally about prejudice, stigma, and lack of education.
I obviously have a great deal of sympathy with people who want access to cannabis and can’t get it, but on the other hand, you can’t seriously expect the government to tell doctors what to prescribe: all they can do really is improve the framework in which doctors can come to the proper clinical decision. What the ministers could be doing is increasing investment in medical education and working to establish a domestic supply of cannabis and cannabis-based medicines in the UK – it is something that needs careful regulation, but the process of acquiring a licence to produce medicinal cannabis in the UK is so complex and so expensive as to be absurd; and it’s unsustainable.
A recent survey showed 1.4 million people are using illicit cannabis to treat medical conditions. The only way all those people could get access to the cannabis they need is by general legalisation; that’s not going to happen through NHS prescriptions. The only people who are going to get prescription on the NHS are people who have clearly defined medical conditions for which clearly defined benefits can be shown, whereas a lot of people use cannabis for low level issues such as minor depression or minor chronic pain. We should be heading in the direction of general legalisation; there are a number of different models for that and my personal view is that the Colorado model is excellent. I know some people regard it as being too commercial and think there should be more restrictions on packaging and advertising, but in the free market society, you’ve got to allow people to market cannabis – only to adults, of course – in the same way as they can market alcohol.
In the past you have put forward papers on cannabis tax and regulation in the UK – do they still apply now, could these documents be utilised in 2020?
We have two fundamental documents: a research paper that we commissioned in 2011 called ‘Taxing the UK cannabis market’ and ‘How to regulate cannabis in Britain’, which was based on that research; and those two documents are still absolutely valid today. The information on which they are based hasn’t really changed. I’ve been back to the research company every year since we commissioned the first research paper and said: should we be doing this again? And their answer has been: we’d love to take your money, but frankly, we don’t think we would come up with anything very different. We don’t think anything very much has changed.
The only thing that has changed is that there is a slow creeping acceptance of cannabis at all levels of society – more so as a medicine, but also there is an increasing acceptance of the fact that the vast majority of people who choose to use it recreationally do so without causing themselves or anyone else any harm.
CLEAR was also instrumental in setting up the Cannabis Trade Association (CTA) in 2016, when the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) indicated it was going to clamp down on the CBD market. We later pulled out of the CTA and set up our own trade association called Cannabis Professionals, or CannaPro; which now offers a much lower cost for membership: people can join CannaPro for a very small one-off fee, rather than paying very substantial monthly fees to become a member of a trade association, which is necessary to get the various approvals that payment processors and insurance companies require.
What is CLEAR’s view on CBD as a novel food in Europe?
As far as Novel Foods regulation is concerned: it is nothing less than a scam, which is designed simply to hijack the CBD market for the benefit of big business and the bureaucrats in the Food Standards Agency (FSA); and previously the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). There is no credible evidence at all for any safety concerns related to CBD. The safety concerns the FSA has published with the support of the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI) is supporting are completely spurious: they are completely contradicted by the World Health Organization; they are based on dosages between 10 and 2,000 times the dose that is actually recommended.
They are completely invented and hyped up scares for no other reason than to enable big business to take control of the market. This market was created by small one- and two-person businesses, the regulators weren’t interested in it until suddenly it became worth hundreds of millions of pounds. And now they want to take all these people who did all the early work out of the picture by instituting levels of bureaucracy and regulation which are completely disproportionate, completely unwarranted, completely unnecessary. They just want to price these people out of the market.
The ACI is a consortium based around the multimillionaire Paul Birch. They don’t have the interests of the consumer at heart, the only people whose interest they have at heart are the fat cats in large organisations who want to seize control of this market. The FSA’s actions on it are incompetent– I’ve been dealing with the FSA on this since 2016, and I’ve seen them change their minds, back and forth, again and again and again and again; and they still don’t know what they’re talking about. Their definition of a CBD extract is nonsense: if you take their definition at its word, then it’s clear that whole plant extracts are not included – and it’s whole plant extracts that this market has been built on; whole plant extracts have been shown to work most effectively and they are what consumers want. The direction FSA is going, with the ACI’s support, is towards an isolate-only market; it is going to be impossible to get Novel Foods authorisation for whole plant extract, because by its very nature it is plant derived and there are inconsistencies between batches – but that authorisation is completely unnecessary anyway, because this substance is not something that is harmful, even in massive doses.
Our advice to our members is that there is a battle ahead. There will be some enforcement, but the FSA and Trading Standards haven’t got the resources to manage the levels of enforcement they would suggest. The market will continue as a two-tier system: there will be isolate-based products, which will be in the multiples, but the smaller artisan companies selling whole plant extracts will continue – probably mainly online and in small shops – because that is what people want and what is most effective.
Some aspects of the hemp industry contend that plant extract in particular should not be regulated as a novel food because hemp extract has been traditionally used for centuries: do you agree?
Absolutely. That evidence has been presented first to the EU and then to the FSA – and they simply refuse to look at it, in exactly the same way that for years, we’ve been showing politicians and the medical profession the evidence on the medicinal use of cannabis; and for years they just ignored it. They refused to look at it and insisted there was no medicinal value in cannabis, and exactly the same thing is now happening with evidence about hemp as a traditional food.
The stupid thing is that they say explicitly that hemp is not a novel food: in fact, hemp is in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest cultivated crop; and to manipulate the situation to classify hemp extracts as novel, I would say, is pretty damn close to fraud. The European Industrial Hemp Association has provided evidence of a recipe from the 12th century for hemp porridge, which is simply a form of extraction.
The fact that we use more modern extraction methods in the present day doesn’t matter: the content of whole plant extract is essentially molecularly identical to the plants; therefore, how can you say that it’s a traditional food in the plant, but when you’ve extracted it it’s not? It’s nonsense. It’s a complete fiction, designed to take the market away from the people who created it and enable big business to take the majority share and for bureaucrats to give themselves more power. I’m not opposed to rules and regulations, but the level of regulation that are being imposed here is completely disproportionate and unjustified.
Does there need to be better regulation of CBD in the UK?
Yes. We need a standardised testing method, because too many people are using different forms of testing to establish the cannabinoid content of their product and whether there are any contaminants. We also need much clearer rules and regulations on packaging and labelling. These are all relatively speaking light touch issues; in many ways, they have already been dealt with by the trade associations. Since about 2016 the CTA and CannaPro have been trying to get the FSA to work with us on these things, but they really are a complete mess. There does need to be regulation, I agree with that; but Novel Foods is not the way: it’s just completely ludicrous and it is a scam.
CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform