In a small town in a remote protected wilderness area in the far north of England, eight or nine miles from the nearest police station, Leon sleeps with a hammer next to his pillow, his front door barricaded with wooden beams he’s drilled into place.
“I’m in a no-man’s land,” Leon told Leafly in a recent telephone interview. “I’m sick of living like this.”
These scant security measures are the first and last lines of defense between outside threats and the eight cannabis plants he’s cultivating in a spare room. His main worry these days isn’t a visit from local rip-off artists but the faraway police, though both know exactly what he’s doing.
In the case of the cops, it’s because Leon told them.
Leon, whose last name and exact location Leafly is withholding at his request, is one of several hundred cannabis patients in the UK—one in every police district in the country—who have identified themselves to local law enforcement as illegally cultivating cannabis.
Though doing so puts these activists at risk, the act of self-incriminating is an effort to shame police and public health officials into changing UK cannabis policy and easing access for patients who have one or more qualifying conditions and say they cannot afford a private prescription.
Even after last year’s great advance for medical cannabis—a set of reforms triggered after officials from seized cannabis oil from an epileptic boy’s family at Heathrow Airport, prompting an international outcry and a reexamination of one of western Europe’s most punitive cannabis policies—and after several years of steadily declines in marijuana-related arrests, anxiety is still a way of life for anyone growing the plant in the United Kingdom.
And obtaining access through other means remains either illegal or nearly impossible, not to mention dangerous or costly.
Though medical cannabis became legal with a doctor’s prescription in November, doctors with the country’s National Health Service, which covers health care for 97%of Britons, still refuse to write prescriptions. That leaves private health care, and even after paying a private physician upwards of £1,000 for a prescription, accessing cannabis or cannabis-based medicines remains both difficult and exorbitantly expensive.
So far only 450 people across the country have managed to get a prescription, according to NHS data. Which means that for many, the illegal market remains the only viable path to cannabis. And while police appear less than zealous to crack down on legitimate patients, raids can and do happen.
The campaign to self-incriminate started with Carly Barton, a 32-year-old art lecturer who last year became the UK’s first licensed medical cannabis patient. Frustrated by the unworkable situation around access, Barton, who has fibromyalgia-related chronic pain following a stroke, became the first to rat herself out to the police. Barton did so in a letter sent to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister in charge of setting law enforcement policy and the official who triggered last year’s thaw.
Barton’s self-outing sparked a media blitz—and inspired Leon and many others to follow.
As of Sunday, no patients had received a response from police authorities after identifying themselves, according to Barton. On the other hand, no one who’d signed on to the amnesty petition had received a visit from the authorities, either.
What comes now is a test of the effectiveness of mass protest, law-enforcement officials’ resolve—and the responsiveness of British officials already occupied with the ongoing Brexit drama.
“From what I understand, police are behind the amnesty,” Leon said. “They won’t [raid] if they don’t have to. For genuinely sick people in need of medicinal cannabis, they’re on our side.”
That uneasy peace evaporates if a neighbor phones the cops—police are then obliged to respond—but even in that case, officials will already be fully aware that what they’re responding to is a cannabis garden grown by a sick person for medicinal purposes rather than profit.
Much like in the United States, police attitudes in the UK towards cannabis vary wildly depending on geography. The inconsistency makes it difficult to know whether local law enforcement will crack down or look the other way.
In Durham, for example, Chief Constable Mike Barton runs what the Economist called one of Britain’s top-rated police forces. Barton has also effectively decriminalized cannabis by telling his 1,100 constables not to pursue arrests against personal-use possession and cultivation.
“I want to cultivate it. I want to know what I’m smoking.”
Ann Alston, UK medical home grower
But Ann Alston does not live in Durham. The 54 year old lost her career five years ago due to debilitating pain, also from fibromyalgia, which left her reliant on a cornucopia of opioids. Alston resides in South Wales, where police have a zero-tolerance attitude towards cannabis. Many of her neighbors, she said, are retired police officers with similar attitudes.
“Just yesterday there was a bust not two and a half miles from me, in a tiny little village,” she told Leafly on Thursday. “If anyone thought for one minute that I had a joint in this house, they’d come through the door heavy-handed.”
Alston’s routine, whenever she tires of the fentanyl patches or liquid morphine she’s prescribed, is to phone a friend, who then arranges for her to pick up a miniscule amount of cannabis: a joint or two. She’ll then smoke in a secluded area before returning home. She does not dare keep any cannabis in the house. All she wants, she says, is a modest garden.
“I want to cultivate it. I want to know what I’m smoking,” she said. “Just enough for me to be able to get out of bed and be able to face the day.”
The risks UK patients run come from authorities other than the police. In the case of Giancarlo, who lives in London and uses cannabis to help manage Crohn’s disease, an appointment his wife had with her therapist nearly resulted in disaster.
Giancarlo, whose last name Leafly is withholding at his request, started growing cannabis out of economic necessity—bought on the street, a month’s supply was running him up to £1,000. Initially, he was most worried about his landlord discovering the grow tents and evicting him.
But a week after his wife mentioned in a therapy appointment that she was using cannabis to help treat her depression, a social worker showed up at their two-bedroom flat, asking after the welfare of the couple’s 12-year-old daughter. One of those two bedrooms had three cannabis plants—one of which was flowering.
“It was terrifying,” said Giancarlo, who handled the situation with guarded honesty. He acknowledged using cannabis for medical reasons and said he does so away from his daughter. He did not mention cultivation, however; it didn’t come up. That satisfied the social worker, but every knock at his flat door still sends Giancarlo into a panic. Last week, he said, a helicopter hovered above his building for 45 minutes. Was it searching for heat signatures from grow rooms?
He can’t know, but the experiences underscore the necessity for more advances. They were also enough to compel Giancarlo to follow Barton and Leon’s lead and confess to the police that he, too, is growing cannabis—not only because he must in order to live, but also to avoid putting money in a drug-trafficker’s pocket.
“We need to take this risk because otherwise we will wait many, many years until someone, a politician or someone in government, changes something,” Giancarlo said. “This is our chance to do something. I need to take this risk. I need to step in front to show the authorities that I am not a criminal. That’s why I’m not hiding. I’m not doing something bad. I’m doing something for my health.”
Back in the far north, Leon, who grows to help manage chronic pain after a 2001 stroke, is on a classic underground grower’s schedule. He’s up all night with the plants and turns in for a few hours of fitful sleep around dawn. All he wants, he told Leafly, is to cultivate in peace, maybe for a few other patients—something that sounds very similar to the caregiver model common in early US medical marijuana states.
“We’re so close to a change right now,” he said. “But until then, I’m just living day to day.”