New UK political party wants to make cannabis an election issue

A new political party is planning to field as many as 100 candidates at the general election to force the issue of cannabis legalisation centre stage.

Cista – Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol – is inspired by legalisation of the drug in some US states. The party’s election candidates will include Paul Birch, who co-founded Bebo before it was sold to AOL for $850m (£548m) in 2008 and says he is investing up to £100,000 in the venture.

Other candidates around the UK are soon to be named; this week the party said Shane O’Donnell, a former Conservative party activist, would stand against Labour’s Keir Starmer and the Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, in the London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras.

According to YouGov polling commissioned by Cista and provided to the Guardian, 44% of voters support the legalisation of cannabis against 42% who don’t (with 14% undecided).

The two mainstream parties with the most to lose from some voters being tempted to opt for Cista in marginal constituencies are the Greens, which supports decriminalisation, and the Liberal Democrats, which has been looking at the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use and allowing cannabis to be sold on the open market.

However, Birch’s party has made a policy decision not to run in Brighton, where the sole Green MP Caroline Lucas is defending her seat, and in constituencies with incumbent Lib Dem MPs. The decision was taken after Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert, one of parliament’s most visible advocates of the decriminalisation of drugs, raised the issue of a candidate from Cista standing against him.

Birch said that in the main the other parties were keen not to talk about the issue of legalisation because they were embarrassed by it. “In the absence of this party forming I doubt that it would be an election issue. The Greens are the most explicit but even they don’t make it a prominent issue,” he added.

“With what has been happening in US states though, it now feels like it’s within touching distance. It’s like this is the final push and the time is right.”

Birch suggested that parallels with the road to legalisation in US states were forming on the basis of another of his party’s YouGov poll findings, which was that 18% of people believed that cannabis was safer than alcohol, while more than half thought that they were the same in safety terms.

He said: “In Colorado [one of the first US states to legalise the recreational use and sale of marijuana] the basis of their campaign was to juxtapose cannabis and alcohol. They knew that once they moved people to understand that it was safer then people would be happy to legalise it.”

Principally, Birch has faith that the public will come around to the idea in greater numbers as a result of becoming ever more informed. Of a recent experiment where the Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow took large amounts of skunk-type cannabis, resulting in him feeling “as if his soul had been wrenched from his body”, Birch said that this was akin to forcing a teetotaller to down a bottle of illegally distilled moonshine. In a regulated industry, he argued, the risk to consumers could be considerably reduced.

Cista’s candidates will campaign for a royal commission to review the UK’s drug laws relating to cannabis – a relatively modest initial aim calibrated to maximise its appeal. They will also push the economic argument for legalisation, which the party argues could net the exchequer as much as £900m if cannabis were legalised and properly controlled.

The party, which is keen to establish itself as a professional outfit in contrast to previous electoral attempts at highlighting the decriminalisation cause, is signing up members and candidates using online forms. It is eager to push back against stereotypes and, in particular, encourage women to become involved.

Five candidates, including Birch, are signed up to stand for election on 7 May, while he and his team will this week begin travelling around the UK in search of other candidates who they expect will include academics, existing campaigners, students and people who work or have experience of working in the criminal justice system.


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