Paul Birch, the co-founder of Bebo and chairman of the recently established single-issue political party Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol (CISTA), was in Glasgow on Tuesday to launch his party’s campaign in Scotland, ahead of the General Election in May. CISTA campaigns for the reform of laws which prohibit the sale and possession of cannabis in the UK. After meeting CISTA candidates standing in Scottish constituencies, he spoke to the Glasgow Guardian.
Guardian: To have launched a single-issue party, you must be passionate about that issue, in this case, legalising cannabis. How did that come about?
Birch: Well, just from personal experience around consuming alcohol and cannabis. My observation was alcohol feels like it might not be that safe. So then I googled it a few years ago and I was like, "It’s not just me. Wow! It’s much more extreme than I thought it was. It’s like a hundred, several hundred times safer." So that why I first got involved in it. I was interested I guess in politics and policies for a while, a kind of combination of those two things. This is one of those issues where there isn’t really debate or discussion. There is only one right thing to do; there are just reasons why they haven’t got round to doing it and we’re trying to help unlock those reasons and get them doing it.
Guardian: So how did the party form?
Birch: I had the idea in December this year and just applied to affiliate as a political party as you can do. There’s three hundred in the UK overall. We got our registration back and then we launched.
Guardian: Pretty fast then?
Birch: Pretty fast, pretty short, pretty close to the election but we’re heading for between 30-40 candidates at the moment, I imagine.
Guardian: How many of those candidates are you going to have in Scotland?
Birch: Probably heading for...Scotland… five or six I would say. I’m meeting new people today like Chris who said "I’ll be a candidate myself", who is well-connected with cannabis groups in Scotland. When people see one person stepping forward sometimes it can lead to a deluge of other people because, well it’s like, if they're doing it then this is a thing I should do also.
Guardian: In Scotland, the Scottish Greens are already in favour of introducing the licensed sale of cannabis. Is it a concern that your party could take votes away from an established pro-cannabis party?
Birch: It might take away a few votes but our policy is not to stand where there is a Green MP or a Lib Dem MP because they’re so pro. So we were going to have someone in the Orkneys; they have a Lib Dem MP apparently.
Birch: We’ve got a candidate that wants to stand there but unfortunately we had to tell him he can’t.
Guardian: Do you not think you could pull more favour lobbying outside as opposed to being a political party? Is that something you have considered?
Birch: The thing is lobbying is already happening. We could do some as well but there is a certain space, a discourse in the media, around political parties. Having a political party on this theme we can get more attention on topics, hopefully, that would be more spoken about in this election than it would be because we are around. Ultimately, when parties come to do their manifestos, they normally look at other parties' policies first then edit, copy, fix what other parties have got. So if we have a really good progressive drugs policy then hopefully another bigger party will come up with a policy other than ‘Just Say No’, which is what the Conservative and Labour parties do. Then hopefully it will have some impact on those.
Guardian: Are you going to have any other policies at all, is it just purely sticking to the single-issue of cannabis?
Birch: It’s not just a single-issue about cannabis, it’s actually about all recreational drugs. So looking at the full panacea. Tackling cannabis in isolation through a Royal Commision seems a bit perverse in a way to take just one drug. Cannabis just happens to be the one most popular right now.
Guardian: Are you a current cannabis user?
Birch: Am I myself? I am. I prefer consumer rather than user by the way. You don’t say alcohol user.
Guardian: I wasn’t aware of the terminology differences.
Birch: It’s slightly derogatory. When you step back and think about the phraseology that has come around has a negative sentiment about cannabis.
Guardian: So, often when a politician will say they are not in favour of supporting cannabis legalisation, they will cite medical evidence which suggests a link between poor mental health, such as schizophrenia and cannabis usage. Do you accept that link?
Birch: Well, okay I accept some of the the things they raise. However, what happens in the media is there are lots of questions you could discuss about cannabis and safety, but the public will focus on the one particular topic where there are potential negative storylines and they don’t get presented the more important information about deaths, violence and those sorts of topics. Which through cannabis versus alcohol, alcohol loses by a country mile both times. But people are directed towards this one story. If you look at mental health, cannabis isn’t necessarily a negative around mental health. When they introduced medical cannabis in the American states, they looked at each state that introduced it they saw that in every state male suicide rates went down by 10 per cent within three years between the ages of 22-44. This is because people were self-medicating around depression to get them over it so it’s not a simple argument that the press and media make out. They make out that cannabis is really harmful but they’re lying - they know it’s not. Relative to alcohol it is incredibly safe.
Guardian: Are you looking to field candidates in elections beyond the upcoming general election?
Birch: Yeah, we’ve got the Scottish election next year which we are definitely going to stand. We’ve obviously got more chance of getting someone elected on the list system so I guess we will have a focus on that, I imagine. We are only starting to look into it now. With that system there’s more chance of getting someone elected, with first past the post it’s incredibly hard for a single-issue party to make any headway and get someone elected.
Guardian: In terms of the party’s finances, are you the main backer?
Birch: I am at the moment.
Guardian: Is this the number one project you’re involved in at the moment?
Birch: I’d say it is. Obviously it is election period so it has to get a lot of attention because there is so much going on and also we are in startup mode, it’s very intense.