How can the diffusion of social networks apply to cannabis?
This report explores the likelihood of the UK legalising recreational cannabis. I will address this topic through empirical research to highlight the importance of accessibility of cannabis within the UK economy.
Cannabis became a prohibited substance in the UK in 1928 under the Dangerous Drugs Act as an attempt to mitigate the rising fear of the government regarding minorities gaining social influence accompanied with the want to eliminate competition of tinctures that could overshadow the alcohol industry- a space that was and still is relatively profitable and taxable.
Unlike the UK, the US experienced heavy tension in restricting cannabis with the likes of movies ‘Reefer Madness,’ that used propaganda to attach negative stigma and connotations of mental illness to those who consume. ‘Evil marijuana dealers lurked in public schools, waiting to entice their children into a life of crime and degeneracy.’ (The Conversation, 2018) This narrative set the tone for the failing war on drugs, a global campaign led by the US federal government to discourage production, distribution and consumption of the plant. Prior to prohibition, the drug was recognised for it’s medicinal properties and ability to alleviate various forms of pain, ‘German researchers found that marijuana-based remedies increased the number of people who reported a 50% or more reduction in pain relief.’ (WebMD, 2018)
‘The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana,’ Schlosser wrote for The Atlantic in 1994. This suggests that prohibition was an act of racism, to restrict the potential growth of people of colour within an industry they were deeply connected to- the UK inherited a similar tone which formed the nation’s general standpoint of cannabis being a ‘harmful' substance.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said cannabis “destroy lives and fuel violence. We have absolutely no intention of decriminalising dangerous and harmful substances for recreational use. Decriminalisation would leave organised criminals in control, while risking an increase in drug use, which drives crime and violence which blights our streets.” This highlights the stance of the federal government on cannabis because this is partial truth. The black market are able to optimise their market share because of the ease of accessibility for consumers. If cannabis was as readily available as alcohol which can be found in many convenience stores across the country, people will purchase cannabis the same way they’d purchase other products in store which informs the habits of consumers as they would no longer be restricted to underground trade and can experience quality product freely, sold by trusted vendors with licenses.
Cannabis can easily be considered harmful under prohibition because the intent of the black market isn’t always pure and health-driven- according to CityA.M. the market can be ’a dangerous crossroads’. Nevertheless, the ‘war on drugs’ fails to take an objective approach to the health benefits of the plant, the number of patients and non patients self-medicating through the black market regardless of legislation and the opportunity for industry and in turn GDP growth.
Charlotte Caldwell and her son Billy played a significance role in the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018 with the compelling story they presented to the High Court. ‘Cannabis oil was confiscated from Charlotte at London Heathrow Airport after she brought it over from Canada’ (BBC, 2019) and her son Billy
was admitted to hospital after suffering further seizures. "The policing minister urged the family to explore licensing options with the Department of Health Northern Ireland but Billy was first given the treatment in the United States, where medical marijuana at the time was legal. ‘Mrs Caldwell brought a case against the Health and Social Care Board over an alleged failure to take a decision on the Canadian-sourced treatment,’ especially as the family tried and tested various other forms of medication in the UK to treat Billy’s epilepsy, which proved ineffective hence the trip to Canada. This case became highly publicised through social media, pressuring the Home Office to announce a ‘new law that will not limit the types of conditions that can be considered for treatment and instead, doctors must make decisions for prescribing cannabis-based products for medicinal use on a case-by-case basis.’ (GOV.UK, 2018). This compelling story sets an example for the extent in addressing tradition in policy within the UK and as a result, cannabis was viewed objectively for it’s benefits to health rather than the implications of crime.
Though legislation for medical cannabis has been passed, the information gap between clinics and the end user is evident, as many illicit users may be eligible for access to medical prescriptions and a Cancard (an ID that permits patients to legally consume). According to the Independent, there are 1.4 million illicit users of street cannabis in the UK relative to the 3 patients issued prescriptions by the NHS since legalisation (Drug Science, 2021) and the estimated 2,500 prescriptions issued by private clinics. This disconnect represents the lack of commercial acknowledgement of cannabis culture and consequently, advocates, brands and corporations are responsible for informing the public of their entitlement, to optimise the growth of an industry and encourage healthier lifestyles.
In support of this report, I will review the ‘Diffusion of Social Networks’ by Matthew O Jackson and Leeat Yariv to analyse and model how information is transmitted through a network. The written piece states, ’an individual’s decision to adopt a new behaviour often depends on the distribution of similar choices the individual observes among her peers, be they friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. (Jackson & Yariv, 2006). In relation to our topic of discussion, this implies that people would be influenced to obtain medical identification if their surrounding network also has a medical card. At the outset, a small portion of the population is randomly selected to adopt the behaviour.
An example of this is ‘Project Twenty21, an initiative with aims to enrol 20,000 eligible patients under this scheme to allow access to medical cannabis treatment at a capped price, and have their treatment tracked by Drug Science. ‘Drug Science will use the data from Project Twenty21 to provide evidence for NHS funding of medical cannabis treatment. (Drug Science, 2022).’
NHS doctors have refrained from prescribing cannabis because of the 'lack of evidence and research’ supporting consumption behaviour that allows for confidence in decision making but initiatives like Project Twenty21 allow for a larger dataset whilst providing a solution to the variable cost of treatment. The recipients will then spread the information throughout their network and the return of their actions is depend on the number of neighbours the agent has and the actions they choose. Social mediums also play a role in the spread of information, by informing networks of new agent activity and changes in legislation.
According to Recreational Europe (Hanway Associates, 2021), there are four models of control: prohibition, depenalisation, decriminalisation and legislation. Prohibition is considered the default cannabis model across countries that provides criminal sanctions for cannabis activity irrespective of the state- this is the current stance of the UK. Depenalisation suggests that activity is considered criminal but not usually punishable, offenders may be assigned to diversion schemes such as community service intended to prevent future offenses. Decriminalisation considers activity as unlawful but not criminal, so isn’t punishable by minor sanctions and criminal penalties and lastly, legalisation which considered previously unlawful activity as legal. The collation of research data will not only inform whether or not the UK adopts new ‘technology’ but also how they will approach legislation.
A ‘macro’ approach accounts for surrounding European countries to the UK such as France, Germany and Spain, and even though their models of control differ throughout, the attitudes of these neighbours seems to be shifting, with ’55% of Europeans in favour of legalising cannabis sales to over-18s.’ (Hanway Associates, 2022). This suggests, the more agents facilitate cannabis, the more nations will accept cannabis into society and as a result, they will cater their models to residential activity.
In the first quarter of 2021, MGC Pharma, a European biopharma company became the first to float on the London Stock Exchange. This is a power move in reducing the barrier to capital for companies because it allows for greater growth capacity and credibility as the public and investors realise the potential of the market. Publicly listed companies also increase the availability of data for analysis, which can help market experts identify trends within the cannabis industry to inform allocation of resources and policy making.
The UK general government faces a burgeoning national debt, ‘£2,223.0 billion at the end of the financial year ending March 2021, equivalent to 103.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).’ (ONS, 2021). This represents the inflation surge following the COVID-19 pandemic that has driven up the cost of debt, especially for public bodies such as the NHS that incur cumulative debt to fund the rising demand for care. The burden of the deficit isn’t sustainable in the long run and so the government is slipping through plans to “effectively privatise the NHS by stealth” in “the name of a pandemic.” The privatisation suggests an increase in financial backing which allows for a service of greater efficiency for citizens.
However, the healthcare system will shock many UK residents as it has been privately
funded through tax revenue since 1948 which has created a national dependency for free health service and as a result, individuals will incur personal costs and potentially debt, in keeping up the demand for healthcare. ‘In the event cannabis was legalized and the government only chose to collect value added tax (20 percent) the estimated annual tax yield would be approximately 204 million British pounds,’ (Statista, 2022) which could fund the public sector to ease the pressure of the budget deficit, but this is dependent on the influence of the aforementioned.
Aside from speculation, there are cost and benefit parameters of legislation that effect the following markets: education, labour, health and media. ‘The current state of drug education in the UK is severely lacking, with children getting an average of just one hour per year for drugs and alcohol education.' (Volteface, 2021) This reiterates the limited and outdated teachings on cannabis in schools within the UK which is evident as ‘zero-tolerance drug policies stop UK students seeking help.’ (Guardian, 2022). Students should feel free in talking about their experiences with cannabis because it allows teachers to understand how best to encourage safe consumption, but more importantly, more resources need to be allocated towards drug education as many are left without guidance to form a ‘healthy lifestyle’ with cannabis. Schools must take an inclusive approach to the plant by recognising that two in five students are drug users (BBC, 2018) regardless of policy and acknowledge cannabis as an industry with labour opportunities.
The easier entry point into the industry is the black market which doesn’t require a diploma. It is illegal for schools to advise and there’s no guarantee of security for income and safety, so schools may refrain from the canna industry as a topic of discussion to minimise the likelihood of risk-takers.
Nevertheless, universities are responsible for nurturing future generations of the labour market by providing opportunities for employment and learning. The associated stigma of cannabis can mislead children when choosing a career path- the industry encompasses many other sectors i.e. agriculture, finance, marketing, allowing for a diverse selection of labour roles, yet schools fail to encourage the legacy industry. This limits the potential for market growth as many aspiring students go on to lead successful firms and startups but are limited in their potential for change in the cannabis space.
As mentioned earlier, cannabis can be used as an alternative treatment to other forms of medication and has even proved to work more efficiently in some cases. Loosened medical legislation has allowed for the scientific research that discovered ‘CBD being an effective treatment for people diagnosed with long COVID.’ (Drug Science, 2021). Such breakthroughs are only possible as experts are permitted to perform trials for analysis purposes. ‘Similarly, recreational activity participation was associated with better self-rated health and quality of life.’ (Peterson, 2021) As a result, full legalisation could provide a new form of nourishment for individuals as they can experience the effects of happiness and relaxation the plant has to offer which can be useful, especially in dealing with mental health .
However if cannabis was introduced into society recreationally, people will need to learn their threshold and individuals may not have access to drug education or be capable of self educating. Therefore, we may see irregularity in behaviour across the population, ‘in 2016, in Great Britain 9.6% of adults (around 4.9 million people in the population) drank alcohol on 5 or more days.’ (ONS, 2016). This implies that a percentage of the population may also exhibit addictive personalities in cannabis consumption which could in turn affect the potential productivity of individuals within the UK. Therefore, this reiterates the importance of drug education in society so people become more aware of their limitations.
There is a prevalent lack of commercial support across marketing in the cannabis industry from seed to sale because of the regulatory restrictions surrounding the plant. This minimal coverage limits the potential scale of businesses as they are unable to reach a wider audience and spread the full extent of their messages to consumers. As a result, companies can provide more value for their consumers by providing education as a means to indirectly sell data or products, partner with influencers as they aren’t subject to the same restrictions, or host in-person events to gain direct access to consumer. Although this approach doesn’t guarantee access to a mass audience, it can be essential for building a community based brand that impacts social change. The aforementioned markets interlink and also have a common ground, being the deficiency in communication within the cannabis industry.
The two-step flow of communication is typically used in mass media to model the diffusion of the innovation process. In the first stage, mass media influence opinion leaders- opinion leaders are individuals who commonly have a high influence on the behaviour of the rest in his or her network. In context, these are inquiring individuals or organisations interested in cannabis news and research. ‘In the second stage, opinion leaders influence potential adopters, which are people who were exposed to the messages from mass media but did not believe them automatically’- this is usually through other means such as social media or word of mouth.
This models social contagion which suggests that people become more conscious to a ‘story’ over time. There are various adoption rates for the diffusion of information: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The behaviour pattern of an individual influences how they react to information hence the different rates of adoption- innovators are typically the minority as they are the first to adopt behaviours or technology, and the highest number of individuals lie between the early majority and late majority which each account for 34% of the population according to the Diffusion of Innovation Model. The adoption rate is determined by the individuals agreement with the relevance, content, benefit, immediacy, and source of the innovation. Overtime, senders are able to transmit information to the majority because the message is conveyed in a relatively relatable way but time is of the essence in shifting legislation, because the period of adoption must be consistent with the current technology.
Currently the UK is in the early adoption phase, with trials such as Project Twenty21 encouraging new innovation for access to medicinal cannabis within focus groups, before it is safe for mass implementation. This initiative is effective because the public wants to influence political activity and not necessarily public needs, so this will be an opportunity to provide useful data to inform policy change.
In an interview I conducted with Hanway Associates (the leading European cannabis consultancy), I enquired how close they think we are to seeing a ‘Recreational Europe.’ Their response was, ’Europe was about where the US was in 2012 where you saw these few small movements in states, we saw Colorado and Washington legalise which slowly built up a huge movement across the US and we started to get the feeling that small reforms we were seeing in places like Luxembourg and Malta were the signs of those happening in Europe and the fact that we have now seen Germany and the Dutch commercial cultivation experiment going on we are seeing real signs of progress here’ (Rounders, 2022). This reinforces that recreational cannabis in the UK is extremely likely but requires a unified network to gather and act on data that will implement change.
Report written by: Akeem Babalola
Photography by: Ceylon Giles
The Conversation (2018) Re-criminalizing cannabis is worse than 1930s ‘reefer madness Available at: https://theconversation.com/re-criminalizing-cannabis-is-worse-than-1930s-reefer-madness-89821 (Accessed: 5th May 2022)
WebMD (2018) Can Marijuana Be the Answer for Pain?
Available at: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/news/20180420/can-marijuana-be-the-answer-for-pain (Accessed: 5th May 2022)
The Atlantic (1994) Reefer Madness
Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/08/reefer-madness/303476/ (Accessed: 5th May 2022)
CityA.M. (2022) A dangerous crossroads: Gambling industry warns UK against heavy reform as black market swells across Europe
Available at: https://www.cityam.com/gambling-industry-warns-government-is-at-a-dangerous-crossroads-with-reform-as-black-market-gambling-swells/ (Accessed: 5th May 2022)
BBC (2019) Billy Caldwell: Home Office asked to break medicinal cannabis deadlock
Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-50646814 (Accessed: 5th May 2022)
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Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-that-medicinal-cannabis-is-legal (Accessed: 5th May 2022)
Independent (2019) AROUND 1.4M PEOPLE IN BRITAIN USING ‘STREET CANNABIS’ TO TREAT CHRONIC HEALTH CONDITIONS, POLL FINDS
Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/cannabis-medicinal-uk-health-chronic-conditions-street-yougov-a9198081.html (Accessed: 6th May 2022)
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Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/mar/03/zero-tolerance-drug-policies-stop-uk-students-seeking-help-report-says (Accessed: 6th May 2022)
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Available at: https://volteface.me/feature/absolute-state-drug-education-uk/ (Accessed: 6th May 2022)
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Available at: https://www.drugscience.org.uk/3-years-since-the-uk-legalised-medical-cannabis-and-only-3-nhs-prescriptions/ (Accessed: 6th May 2022)
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Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335521003004?via%3Dihub (Accessed: 6th May 2022)
Rounders (2022) Hanway Associates Interview
Available at: https://www.rounderspapers.com/hanway-associates (Accessed: 6th May 2022)