Thursday 29 July 2021 12:34 pm

Green and pleasant land? The future of cannabis use in the UK

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official.

Smoking as a social activity suffered a heavy blow around 15 years ago. Between 2006 and 2007, the four parts of the United Kingdom brought in new laws prohibiting smoking in public places, with Scotland being the first to take the leap. I bear a sliver of responsibility: I worked for the House of Commons Health Committee which recommended tougher restrictions than the Blair government had originally intended. The result was that it became illegal to smoke in bars, pubs, restaurants, cafés and any other hospitality venues.

The effect of this was—as had always been intended—to reduce the incidence of smoking. At least two million people have stopped smoking since the ban was introduced. Most agree that is a societal and epidemiological good. There is no doubt, though, that it has changed the character of some social interaction: the idea of a pint and a cigarette, or a cigar and a brandy, or an afternoon in a pub’s snug with a pipe, has been consigned to history, and smokers must go outside for their nicotine hit, or else do without. Many have chosen the latter.

However, a new, or at least newly overt, habit is on the rise to transform our socialisation further: cannabis. We have been using Cannabis sativa for its psychoactive properties for more than 5,000 years, and it became almost synonymous with the counterculture of the 1960s, but its non-medical use is now becoming more widely legal. Canada, Mexico and South Africa have removed prohibitions on the drug, as have several American states including California, Colorado and Washington. Many more countries take a relaxed view of existing legal injunctions and have effectively decriminalised it.

An interesting development was the announcement by British American Tobacco this week that it envisioned cannabis as part of its future business model as sale and use of cigarettes continues to decline. BAT bought a stake in Canadian medical cannabis manufacturer Organigram earlier this year, and has begun to fund research into a new range of adult cannabis products.

What might the future look like, then, if cigarette sales continue to fall and other products are teed up to take their place? Vaping is very much part of the landscape now: there were around 11 million vapers worldwide a decade ago, but that number is today more like 50 million. And cannabis fits neatly into the vaping market: cannabidiol (CBD) liquid can be smoked in a vape easily and is sold as relieving anxiety and physical pain. Anywhere which has invested in outdoor smoking facilities—the smoking ban saw a boom in sales for patio heaters—can just as easily welcome cannabis smokers, either vaping or enjoying a traditional joint.

Another effect, humans being as they are, has been the development of cannabis social clubs, or teapads. These are not-for-profit associations which cultivate and harvest cannabis for smoking by their members: a kind of allotment-cum-party which emphasises community spirit, group enjoyment and, in a strange way, a start-to-finish traceable supply chain. There is even a UK-wide list of such organisations.

An inevitable outcome will surely be associations of cannabis connoisseurs. We all like to have an outlet for our chosen form of expertise and snobbery, whether it’s wine, spirits, cigars or food. One can imagine the scene of a circle of smokers, lips pursed finely around a joint made with marijuana grown on the south-facing slopes of the Himalayas, or a pipe packed with particularly flavoursome hashish from a remote part of Afghanistan.

From there, the world is your oyster. Specialist cannabis shops selling the finest products from across the world, an array of pipes and hookahs, high-grade rolling paper, dedicated smoking hats and jackets: if you think any of this is far-fetched, look at eBay’s “tobacciana” category.

None of this is new. Think of the opium dens of the 19th century, more often imagined than real in London but certainly existing in San Francisco and New York and Marseille and Toulon: these had their own attendant rituals and cultures, borrowing heavily from their Chinese originators. It’s easy to imagine a cannabis lounge in the London of 2025.

Style mavens must always be attuned to new and developing trends, like insects detecting the finest tremors in a still pond. Cannabis has been with us for centuries, but our newfound openness to its use—and the direction of travel towards respectability seems strong—will have an impact on how the bright young things of tomorrow disport themselves in their leisure time. Keep your eyes open, but more, follow your nose.