A few weeks ago I saw a tweet quoting Jeremy Roth, a medical cannabis patient speaking at the UK Patient Conference during Medical Cannabis Awareness Week. In the tweet, Jeremy is reported to have said that “every medical cannabis user is one less customer for a drug dealer”, referring to the uptake in patients being prescribed cannabis legally through private clinics instead of turning to the black market to buy cannabis illegally.
"Every medical cannabis user is one less customer for a drug dealer" – Jeremy Roth
— Drug Science (@Drug_Science) November 4, 2022
Head to any cannabis business conference, or talk to those heavily embedded in the medical cannabis industry and you’ll probably hear the same sort of line repeated with enthusiasm. If you look hard enough, you’ll find similar sentiments on leafie.
One of the medical industry’s biggest claims is that it protects patients from the inherent evil that is the dirty drug dealer. Recently, something about this claim has started to bother me, a tiny itch at the back of my brain that can’t be scratched. The tweet, and the attitude of the medical cannabis industry, is that every purchase from the black market is shrouded in danger and risk. Yet in over 20 years of buying cannabis from drug dealers, I’ve never once been sold anything other than high-quality weed.
In the world of drugs, cannabis is a bit of a misnomer. Cannabis plants can take up to 9 months to grow and cure. The learning curve is steep. Cannabis plants are hardy enough, hence the nickname weed, but balancing nutrients, light cycles, pests and watering schedules to get high yields mean a lot can go wrong if you don’t know what to do. Margins are relatively low, the risk is high, and the overall effort is large. Compared to driving to a larger supplier, picking up a big bag of cocaine, splitting it into smaller bags and moving it on, cannabis takes a lot of effort to produce and make a decent profit. It’s why county lines gangs tend to focus on Class A drugs such as crack and heroin.
Of course, some organised gangs are prepared to take the risk. Large grows in abandoned pubs, warehouses and even police stations are evidence that some criminal gangs do take an interest in the wholesale production of weed. But for most consumers, buying cannabis means meeting a friendly and enthusiastic local weed nerd. Most cannabis dealers are just smokers who love nothing more than mastering the plants they consume on the daily. Many plugs are also growers who behave more like artisans than hardened gangsters. Dedicated to producing craft cannabis with the same level of reverie as that one weird mate you have from school who obsesses over bread. They are committed students keen to learn, show off and share their skills.
Most of these passionate growers go beyond being nimble gardeners. Many are well versed in the medicinal properties of the plant too. Long before men in suits came swooping in with venture capital, countless people were risking their freedom to help others heal with cannabis. Take the case of 46-year-old father of 2 Andrew Baines. Police caught Baines with almost a kilo of cannabis and 30 cannabis plants at his home in January 2020, which he had been using to illegally supply thousands of patients with medicine to treat cancer and other life-changing illnesses, never taking a penny for his work. A far cry from the hooded monster lurking in the shadows some investors would have you believe supplies cannabis patients today.
Meanwhile, the current medical market is far from perfect. Poor quality cannabis, seeds and stems making up much of the pack, mould recalls, bugs and bud rot have all been prevalent in cannabis alleged to be grown to the highest standards. Irradiation, the process of treating cannabis flowers with gamma rays, has left many patients unhappy with the effect of the cannabis they are being prescribed. Ask anyone who’s been buying from the black market for years when the last time they bought mouldy weed off their preferred plug was, and chances are you’ll get a confused look. The thousands of dedicated cannabis growers across the country do so because they love the plant, and to put mouldy weed out to their customers would be nothing short of sacrilege.
The medical cannabis industry is making great leaps and bounds under challenging circumstances. For some patients, a prescription can open up the possibility of cannabis as a medicine without the fear of criminal repercussions. For patients who’ve never accessed cannabis illegally, or for those whose careers depend on criminal record checks, having a validated and above board source of cannabis can be life-changing. But the medical market also needs to recognise that many patients have been running the risk of criminality for years, and at present, the high associated costs, stocking and supply issues and problems with the quality of legal medical cannabis are all issues that create barriers. For some, those barriers are just too much to overcome.
Demonising the people that black market patients have trusted for years does nothing to improve relations, and while issues exist with the legal market, cannabis consumers are right to remain sceptical. Cannabis, for many, is a community. One that has endured years of unjustified hardship and difficulty. If the medical cannabis industry really wants to improve the outcomes for patients, it should focus on its own problems and spend less time villainising the market on which its foundations are built.