Picture this; you’re sitting in a UK cafe, having a lazy Sunday afternoon coffee …, and vaping on some weed. But instead of nervously watching for the police and worrying about the smell, you’re unconcerned, because it’s all perfectly legal. I know it may seem unrealistic — this is what you go to Amsterdam for — but there are Cannabis activists in the UK determined to make this a reality. 

The biggest (legal) cannabis producer

Alan Robinson, better known as NICannaGuy, is a cannabis activist from Belfast, Northern Ireland and owner of the first-ever cannabis cafe in Northern Ireland. Alan is one of the hundreds of registered cannabis patients across the UK. In fact, the UK accounts for 70 per cent of the export market around the world for medical cannabis. Still, I doubted whether it was legally possible to get my hands on a marijuana prescription. That’s where I was wrong. There are a few loopholes to jump through, but it’s all above board and perfectly regulated. 

Back in 2018, Alan and a group of other activists sat down with politicians across all the major parties in Northern Ireland and convinced them to extend the law to allow for private medical prescriptions of cannabis in England and Northern Ireland. 

This wasn’t a one or two-party meeting either. Representatives from Northern Ireland’s many political parties were in attendance. Even the notoriously conservative DUP were on board, which perhaps says something about how attitudes to this plant have changed in the 21st century. 

‘The only opposition at that time in that meeting was procedure and red tape’, Alan told me. There were none of the usual concerns being raised about reefer madness or schizophrenia. The politicians were simply interested in making sure that this was all done legally

Of course, it’s important to note that some studies link smoking highly potent marijuana every day to an increased risk of certain psychological disorders. The evidence is not clear-cut and has been disputed, but I’m also pretty certain that no doctor would recommend taking strong doses of any mind-altering substance every day. The key here, as with alcohol or any other substance, is education and moderation. Colorado actually spent some of the tax revenue it made from legalisation on a number of programs aimed at improving the standards of education and health in the state. These include school construction, marijuana education, anti-bullying campaigns, public school grants, youth mentoring, drug abuse and treatment, and grants to the Future Farmers of America. 

So how does Alan’s Cafe actually work?

Well, he isn’t selling weed there, like a Dutch coffee shop. But he is selling CBD and a number of other CBD- infused products, such as CBD coffee. It isn’t legal to smoke inside his show either — neither CBD, weed, or cigarettes, due to smoking laws in Northern Ireland. However, Alan gets around this by only allowing vaping in his shop. He’s also helping put folks in touch with a private clinic in England that will prescribe you medical marijuana. You get the prescription, send it to their associated pharmacist, and they’ll post your cannabis to you right away! It all feels a little less than legal, but I can assure you, it’s all on the level — the PSNI would quickly shut the place down if he was engaging in illegal activity. 

The most wonderful part of the cafe, however, is how he’s managing to bring people together and helping to destigmatise the use of medical marijuana. Alan told me the story of a little old lady from Derry and another pensioner who were both prescribed different strains for the same illness. They came to the shop and vaped their weed together, trying the different strains, laughing, chatting, and legally being allowed to take a drug that has long been demonised. To me, this is really beautiful — especially during a pandemic where the elderly have been somewhat cut off from the rest of us — to hear the story of people coming together, making new friendships, and legally enjoying a treatment that has been very beneficial for them. 

Benefits of medical marijuana

The wide-ranging medical benefits are currently being documented and explored by the medical community. The Harvard blog on the topic lists numerous conditions that have seen improvement from medicinal marijuana:

‘Marijuana is said to be a fantastic muscle relaxant, and people swear by its ability to lessen tremors in Parkinson’s disease. I have also heard of its use quite successfully for fibromyalgia, endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, and most other conditions where the final common pathway is chronic pain.

Marijuana is also used to manage nausea and weight loss and can be used to treat glaucoma. A highly promising area of research is its use for PTSD in veterans who are returning from combat zones. Many veterans and their therapists report drastic improvement and clamor for more studies, and for a loosening of governmental restrictions on its study. Medical marijuana is also reported to help patients suffering from pain and wasting syndrome associated with HIV, as well as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease’.

Regardless of your personal standpoint on the legalization of marijuana, the economic benefits are undeniable. There is no way to argue with the cold hard facts of the economic boom that states such as Colorado and Washington have experienced since the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana. But just how much money have these states been able to bring in through taxable marijuana? And how much could the United Kingdom, Canada, or other countries around the world be expected to benefit from legalization? As of September 2015, weed in Colorado was generating almost double the amount of tax revenue when compared to alcohol ($70 million to $42 million). Similarly, in Washington, the first year of legalization racked up an incredible $65 million in tax revenue.

Boris Johnson’s new ‘War on Drugs’ feels like a step back in our mission towards better drug policy in this country. Instead of allowing the medical benefits to be investigated further, we’re determined to villainise both casual drug users and those who are victims of addiction and crime. And yet, Alan’s story gives me hope that a less draconian approach is possible, with weed at least, and that people may be able to honestly discuss the medical benefits of a plant that humans have used for centuries. 

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