The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Interview: Paul Birch, founder of UK party for a review into cannabis law

The chair of CISTA, a party campaigning solely for a review into cannabis laws, speaks to News Editor Anna Phillips about the War On Drugs, cannabis in the media, and the vision of the UK’s future legalisation policy


CISTA, which stands for Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol, is a newly emerged political party which is campaigning for a Royal Commission to review the existing UK laws regarding cannabis. The party is planning to field as many as 50 candidates in the May General Election in order to force the issue of cannabis legalisation centre stage.

Paul Birch, who co-founded social network site Bebo before it was sold to AOL for £548 million in 2008, is among the party’s election candidates.

Birch told The Mancunion he was inspired to found the party after he became aware that cannabis was significantly safer than alcohol and that the media had failed to be transparent with people about the reality of the drug. He spoke passionately about the UK’s failure in the War On Drugs and why legalisation would be so beneficial for society and the economy.

“More recently, I’ve been inspired by the success in Colorado and three other US states where they’ve got fully regulated legalised cannabis and I thought this was a time when the UK needs to get its act together and go and do it properly, not have an illegal market that supports criminals.”

Speaking in an article about Channel 4’s Drugs Live programme, in which viewers could watch national treasure Jon Snow being sent to a dark place after being given a huge amount of high strength cannabis or ‘skunk’, Birch suggested it was “the equivalent of forcing a teetotaller to down a bottle of vodka and then asking him how he feels.”

Obligatorily referencing Jon Snow, I ask him whether he thinks there is a misinformed stigma surrounding the drug and whether the media is partly to blame.

“I think there is a lot less of a stigma than there used to be but what’s happening now is that the media and some of the tabloids are trying to mislead people as to how dangerous cannabis is, hence this whole term ‘skunk’ which is basically a way of confusing people.”

He references an online article for the Daily Mail, which published some studies shown from America stating that cannabis is 144 times safer than alcohol.

Daily Mail did publish it online but it didn’t make the newspaper print copy. Then The Telegraph covered the same story but couldn’t bring themselves to mention the number ‘114’ times, it was quite a bizarre article. The papers have definitely changed their tune a little bit in the last few years. They used to be more against cannabis than they are now. It is definitely a move towards being open to it but they’re still not honest with people about what is safer.”

According to a YouGov poll commissioned by CISTA, 44 per cent of the voters supported the legalisation and regulation of cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol, 42 per cent voted against legalisation and 14 per cent were undecided.

On the issue of comparing the safety of cannabis to alcohol, 18 per cent of voters agreed cannabis is safer than alcohol, 19 per cent thought that alcohol was safer than cannabis and 51 per cent thought they were about the same.

“What else we found out from our poll is that 82 per cent of people who said they thought cannabis was safer than alcohol, also said that it should be legalised which is why the media are so determined in part to confuse people about its safety, because they know that once people understand how safe it is, most people support regulating it.

“So we see that those people who think it’s ‘about the same’ can easily be tipped into understanding that it actually is significantly safer. Young people in particular are much more understanding of the safety element than older people.”

On CISTA’s website it states that the current drug policy costs the UK an extra £361 million per year, on things such as policing and the treatment of those who consume illegally traded cannabis. Based on research carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, it also suggests that if cannabis was made legally regulated, the Exchequer would benefit from as much as £900 million, as the state of Colorado has already made $50 million in cannabis tax since legalisation in 2014.

“There are lots of economic justifications. There is basically no coherent argument against change; there are none. You will not find a politician who will give you a coherent answer, all they will give you is rhetoric and then move on to the next topic. They will say something like ‘cannabis is dangerous’, but alcohol is dangerous and yet it is licensed and legal and it kills anywhere between 10 and 20 thousand people a year depending on which stats you want to believe.

“I think it is considered a significant issue. I think it is a significant issue that the two major parties don’t really want to talk about. I challenge anyone to find any Labout or Conservative policy spending more than a minute quickly fending off the question and moving on to the next topic because they don’t have any evidence to support what they’re doing. Their arguments are non-existent for supporting carrying on what they’re doing. They don’t have any rationale apart from ‘I think I might lose a few votes if I decide to change it.’

“Obviously Liberal Democrats are very pro-reform and there’s going to be a lot of drug policy quotes in their manifesto, I believe, when they publish it in the near future. But typically parties like the SNP, either they don’t have any drug policy in their manifesto or they have one or two sentences and nothing ever progresses.”

So far CISTA has been campaigning across the UK for candidates to stand in May’s General Election. They currently have around 15 candidates and are set to gain at least 40 leading up to the election. Their candidates range from age 18 to over 50 and are dotted throughout the UK and Ireland.


“People have been applying at a rate of two people per day to be candidates, so a lot of people feel very strongly about the topic which is in part why we set it up. We think Manchester is a great place for us to be doing campaigns as there is a lot of support, partly because there is a significant student population.”

I ask him about the issue of young cannabis users, in light of statistics that revealed the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado lead to a significant decrease in the number of young people who used the drug. Colorado legalised cannabis and state-wide retail sales of the drug in 2014.

“In Holland they have a version of legal cannabis, and consumption amongst young people is less there than it is in the UK. The legal market is quite potentially protective of young people because they diminish the black market and therefore the regulated suppliers where people go do an age check, which no illegal drug dealer is ever going to bother with. There’ll be less criminals operating within the market as opportunity is diminished [sic].”

Ultimately, CISTA stands for harm reduction and wants to break stereotypes and cut the UK deficit while pushing people towards safer cannabis options. Birch suggests that in the long term, “people would be healthier as they are more informed and are consuming drugs on more of a level playing field, whereas at the moment people are pushed to consume alcohol.”

CISTA’s manifesto is set to come out at the end of this month and should see a mix of their own policies, as well as some from the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Labour and Conservative Parties.

According to Birch, CISTA hopes that “one day one of those parties deals back elements of our manifesto when they want to progress their own manifesto in this area.

“If you think that cannabis should be legal either vote for us, or if they are really excited about it then visit our website which is and consider being a candidate. There’s no shortage of opportunity.”

  • malcolmkyle

    Health concerns regarding marijuana tend to come from a self-fueling group of discredited scientists funded by the pharmaceutical, prison, tobacco, and alcohol industries. They push non-peer-reviewed papers, fraught with conjecture and confounding variables, while relying upon reports issued by others in their own group to further support their own grossly misleading research and clearly biased agendas.

    Marijuana and motivation:

    A study at the beginning of the last decade and reported in Scientific American magazine seemed to show that “workers testing positive only for marijuana exhibited absenteeism some 30 percent lower than average”.

    According to a report published by NIDA in 2002, Utah Power and Light actually “spent $215 per employee per year less on the drug abusers in health insurance benefits than on the control group. Those who tested positive at Georgia Power had a higher promotion rate than the company average.”

    “Laboratory studies provide additional information on the causal relationship between motivation and marijuana. The Mendelson experiment, where hospitalised volunteers worked on an operant task to earn money and marijuana for 26 days, found that the dose of marijuana smoked did not influence the amount of work done by either the casual-user group or the heavy-user group; all remained motivated to earn and take home a significant amount of money in addition to the work they did for the marijuana. It seems clear that marijuana does not cause a loss of motivation.”

    —Mendelson, H.H., Kuehnle, J.C., Greenberg, I., & Mello, N.K. (1976). The effects of marihuana use on human operant behavior: Individual data. In M.C. Broude & S. Szara (eds.), _Pharmacology of marihuana_, vol. 2(pp. 643-653). New York: Academic Press.

  • malcolmkyle

    Daily Marijuana Use Is Not Associated with Brain Morphometric Measures in Adolescents or Adults

    “No statistically significant differences were found between daily users and nonusers on volume or shape in the regions of interest. Effect sizes suggest that the failure to find differences was not due to a lack of statistical power, but rather was due to the lack of even a modest effect. In sum, the results indicate that, when carefully controlling for alcohol use, gender, age, and other variables, there is no association between marijuana use and standard volumetric or shape measurements of subcortical structures.”

    The Journal of Neuroscience, 28 January 2015, 35(4): 1505-1512; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2946-14.2015

    Health concerns regarding marijuana tend to come from a self-fueling group of discredited scientists funded by the pharmaceutical, prison, tobacco, and alcohol industries. They push non-peer-reviewed papers, fraught with conjecture and confounding variables, while relying upon reports issued by others in their own group to further support their own grossly misleading research and clearly biased agendas.

    The Duke University (New Zealand) study, the one which claimed that smoking marijuana in your teens leads to a long-term drop in IQ, has since been utterly rebuked by a new paper, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examined the research and found its methodology to be flawed.

    “…existing research suggests an alternative confounding model based on time-varying effects of socioeconomic status on IQ. A simulation of the confounding model reproduces the reported associations from the [August 2012 study], suggesting that the causal effects estimated in Meier et al. are likely to be overestimates, and that the true effect could be zero”.

    —Ole Rogeberg.

  • Alun Buffry

    need to check their facts, stop this call for a royal commission and
    stand up for facts, Rights, Justice and harm reduction – comparing
    cannabis to alcohol is not a good base for a campaign to work from –
    both substances are only as dangerous as the user’s uses. Neither is
    this the first UK cannabis political party see LCA 1999 to 2006 –

  • Evgeny Rogozin

    I think it is time to legalize cannabis. Stop to feed mafia.

  • Philip_Walsh

    Stuff a Royal commission we already had 3 inquires in my life time they all came to the same conclusion, cannabis should not be illegal! The Royal commission is a two year dead end which will report in the middle of the next parliamentary term and then have two years to be re buried. I am deeply suspicious about CIsta and the fact it’s first candidate announced was to stand against the leader of the Green party despite Cista claiming they were not simply going to split the green vote at a time it was most likely to be at its strongest. Add to this the ties with Camaron and the ‘big society’ fiasco which I believe is now having it’s finance’s investigated for it’s ‘missing money’ .
    My question is simple is Cista a Party worth voting for, no I don’t at the moment think it is; indeed at the moment I think it’s a set up, intended to split votes from other parties to create a minimal vote for the pro cannabis party which will result in the continued rejection of the issue by the main parties on the grounds that Cista got so few votes it ‘shows there is no real interest or pressure for reform from the public’. A fiat accompli on behalf of the anti cannabis movement

    • Georgebrunton

      whats with the negativity we all want the same thing. I don’t see why people are always so negative about other parties trying to help the cause. If everyone was to work together to make this happen we would have more of a chance than people trolling a party that is trying to help the greater good.

      • handytrim

        Philip is quite right though. Clear have concluded that a one issue party (especially an issue such as cannabis/drugs) is not the way forward and in fact does little to bring about change. What has been effectual is pushing for medicinal access for those who are proven to benefit from its medicinal use. Denying these people access (and that includes Sativex…the too expensive to prescribe cannabis tincture) is the number one contentious action of our illogical prohibitive policies, and one that should be challenged in court as it has been many times in America (and one of the very good reasons why the tide is changing over there as evidence put before a court is harder to simply dismiss and suppress as our government does with the facts) and that is the real way forward. Unfortunately that will require a substantial amount of backing and nobody is willing to provide that kind of money. Richard Branson could put his money where his mouth is but sadly he’d rather just talk a good game than actually take control of it.

  • Pingback: UK: Interview: Paul Birch, founder of UK party for a review into cannabis law | Coventry & Warwickshire Cannabis Community()