Clark French considers himself something of an accidental cannabis campaigner. After receiving an MS diagnosis in 2010, he utilised his experience as an event promoter to raise awareness of the condition through live music fundraisers, partnering with a well-known MS charity. Cannabis was providing significant relief from his condition, but after openly discussing his medicinal use of the plant live on the radio, he found himself being stigmatised and discriminated against by the very charity he was promoting. “I was doing a live broadcast on the BBC,” Clarke tells us, “I was sat with my Mum, so I felt pretty confident when I opened up about my cannabis use, but some people at the charity were unhappy. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I was found to be in possession of cannabis on charity grounds, the police would be called.”
At the time of his diagnosis, the cannabis landscape was very different in the UK. Medical use was still a distant pipe dream for many people who were fighting for the laws to be changed, and that progress wouldn’t come until medical cannabis was legalised in 2018. Disillusioned with his experience, Clark took his frustration and turned it into momentum, founding Action4MS a group which would go on to become the United Patient Alliance, otherwise known as the UPA.
The UPA quickly became a leading voice for people who were frustrated with the lack of legal access to cannabis to help with medical conditions. But as the group grew, Clark was forced to take a back seat. The birth of his son, the increasing energy needed to cope with his own MS, and the demands of campaigning all took their toll. Behind the scenes, disagreements were forming on how the UPA should progress, and some of those involved splintered off to rebrand the UPA as the PLEA. While Clark wasn’t in agreement with the changes, which led to the UPA essentially ‘disappearing’, he is keen to emphasise he bears no grudges and would love to collaborate with the PLEA in the future. “I didn’t agree with the ‘rebrand’ and nor did many people in the community. That said, I did invite PLEA down to the summit, but unfortunately, no one can make it. I’ve waited to relaunch the UPA with a positive mentality, and I want to be clear that with my hand on my heart, I respect every person who campaigns for cannabis laws to change in the UK, regardless if we disagree on the little details.”
I want to be clear that with my hand on my heart, I respect every person who campaigns for cannabis laws to change in the UK, regardless if we disagree on the little details.
After taking important time out to heal and spend time with family, and spending time coming to terms with the outcome of the UPA in his absence, Clark says he wanted to be in the right place to rebuild. As well as finding the time and energy to restart campaigning, he expressed concern that people may hold him personally responsible for the outcome of the group. Clark also feels that the pandemic has been a big blocker, not just for him personally, but for cannabis activists across the country. “We’re mostly patients, even in the wider movement, and we were the ones who were told to shield. The government told us we had to stay at home so we did! Covid gave me time to pause and reflect on the UPA, but we can see now that the demand for in-people events has never been higher. Spannabis has just had its most attended event of all time, people want to get back out there, so I think it’s the right time to bring the UPA back and bring people together.”
The relaunch of the UPA coincides with the Brighton Medicinal Cannabis Summit on 14 April 2023. The event will bring together patients, experts, campaigners and companies from within the industry to highlight topics such as research, legal challenges and the experiences of patients. Attendees will be able to attend panel-based discussions, sign up for a legal cannabis prescription, and existing patients will be able to medicate freely in a comfortable vaping garden.
While much of the event will look at the challenges patients still face, Clark is keen to point out the positive outcomes that have been achieved over the years. “We have to remember that we have won a victory by getting legal cannabis prescriptions. I understand there are issues, and it’s far from perfect, but not so long ago it was just a dream. I’m personally very proud of the work that’s been done by everyone to achieve that law change, and empowered patients can continue to achieve changes.”
It’s refreshing to hear such positivity, after all, much of the conversation online around medical cannabis in the UK is one of frustration with quality, cost and consistency. Most patients and activists believe we’re still far from where we need to be, and Clark agrees. “Patients now need to be given the right to grow their own medicine if they wish, and I believe those who already have prescriptions can be the key voices in making this change, they need to be empowered to stand up and fight.”
“It’s important that the wider cannabis community comes together to get behind patients. I want to spread the love, we may not agree on every single point, but broadly, we’re all fighting to make the world a better place. I urge everyone to get behind every patient campaign for the law to change, not just the UPA. Through solidarity as a community, we can move the fight for access to cannabis forward.”
The Brighton Medicinal Cannabis Summit takes place at the Brighthelm Center on 14th April 2023. Speakers Charlotte Caldwell, Dr Callie Seaman, Dr Gary Potter, Robert Jappie, Alkyoni Athanasiou-Fragkouli, and Alicia Mahar. For more information and tickets visit the UPA website.