Opinion: Cannabis Requires an Interdisciplinary Approach

by Katya Kowalski


I started working at Volteface just over a year ago now, during a bizarrely unprecedented time. What I would have liked to be a front-facing position in the advocacy space, suddenly had to be performed from my bedroom, in the gloom and isolation of lockdown hibernation. 

My experience stood in stark contrast to the pre-Covid Volteface life my colleagues reminisced about. Nevertheless, the grass did turn greener and after a long-old while of not seeing people ‘in real life’ this all began to change as networking drinks and events finally began to take place. 

These events reopened doors to in person discussions with thought leaders and industry professionals. Lockdown was a largely surreal experience, finally meeting people in the flesh that I had been ‘following’ on social media platforms, or chatting to over Zoom for countless hours during that strange hibernation period, was a cathartic moment. 

Despite working in the cannabis space for over a year, in-person networking felt like a kind of belated introduction to the sector. Like any introduction, mine came with a series of realisations about the space I work in – a lot of them stemming from frustration.

The work we do at Volteface includes coming up with innovative ways to normalise cannabis, and bring new voices into the drug policy discussion. Though we do see exciting and fast-paced developments in drug policy, it can be exhausting and disheartening when matters move slower than we would like to – than we know it needs to. 

This sentiment is certainly echoed within the cannabis industry – since the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, not much has changed for cannabis with many of the same problems still troubling the industry. 

It would, of course, be unfair to argue that we haven’t seen any progress and developments around cannabis – we absolutely have – and things are moving in the right direction. However, what a large proportion of the UK cannabis industry needs to realise is that the current approach is not working. This is why we haven’t seen a great deal of progress in the last 4 years.

So, what is it that isn’t working? Why does a sector with such potential to boom, still look busted?

The European cannabis industry loves to talk about investment and acquisitions –  both of which are essential for any booming sector. There continue to be extensive conversations around the great opportunity that cannabis presents, along with the investment and acquisitions that are making the European market a world-leading one.

Hype can be fun but it has somewhat worked to the detriment of cannabis. Particularly as there continues to be a shocking oversight when it comes to incorporating patients’ voices into the conversation – currently an industry-focused monologue.

To be clear – I am all for opening the market to cannabis, and think it is extremely important to look at this through an economic and investment lens with a lot of exciting opportunities. I’m in favour of sensible industry participation, however, we cannot make this space all about investment.

The cannabis industry is a nascent one, and we have an opportunity to do things progressively and sustainably. However, doing things correctly means bringing patients to the forefront, with a seat at the table and their voices heard.

Sadly, we continue to see very little of this. Patients aren’t listened to, and when companies claim they are listening, promises are too often not followed through. Actions certainly speak louder than words.

It is hugely disheartening to see a lack of participation and initiative from industry leaders to the audience they need to be communicating with the most – patients.

The industry happily trumpets estimates of the value of capital cannabis can create, but it would be wise to remember that nothing can be done without patients. Without them, there is no industry. This oversight is upsetting to witness.

Understandably, cannabis is a flowering market hungry for cash – but there aren’t nearly enough patients. Companies are fighting over a grand total of 10,000 patients from a cohort of at least 1.4 million that use cannabis medicinally but illegally, rather working together to expand access to the point where companies can each get their fair share.

So, what can be done?

The industry continues to successfully bring together thought leaders to discuss what the future for cannabis looks like. All are quick to jump to the opportunity of highlighting business growth, the need for further investment, and taking an economically-focused approach.

However, the biggest problem with these discussions is the one-sided nature of them, and the startling lack of diversity in views put across. Debate fails to be debate when everyone agrees with each other. This is what I’ve seen happen at a significant amount of cannabis industry events – panels largely filled with CEOs and Directors, with their business hat on throughout, smiling and nodding at everything each other says. 

What the majority seem to forget is that industry leaders are only one stakeholder in the cannabis sector. A vast array of other stakeholders often aren’t even in attendance or given the spotlight.

Only when we bring together a more diverse set of speakers can we truly shed light on all facets of the problem, and come up with a constructive solution to the benefit of all.

What does my panel suggestion look like? A CEO, a politician, a regulator, a journalist, a patient, a doctor and an academic. I can guarantee you that these discussions would be far more productive than five CEOs discussing their businesses.

The cannabis industry – befitting of the plant itself – is complex, and there is no simple solution, or singular vision of what the future looks like. For us to truly see change and expand the industry sustainably, more attention must be paid to patients, and bring a variety of stakeholders together to improve the sector.

Perhaps money does make the world go round, but it isn’t all about investment. Let’s remember why we are here at all, for patients. If you aren’t here for patients then you don’t deserve a seat at the table.

This piece was written by Katya Kowalski, Head of Operations at Volteface. Tweets @KowalskiKatya. 


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