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14th March 2015

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.”

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