Robert Jackman

Homegrown industry

In the investment houses of Mayfair, bullish analysts are excited about the prospect of a ‘green rush’

If you were looking for an international drugs empire, Downham Market would not be the first place you’d think of. With a population of around 10,000, this sleepy Fenland town is probably about as typical as they come — typical, that is, apart from the smell.

It was around two years ago that residents first noticed it: a distinctive pungent scent which seemed to hang on the wind before eventually engulfing the town for several days. Now locals say the gusts come and go. But when the odour first appeared, it was so strong that at least one resident phoned the police to complain about feeling nauseous.

It turned out that the smell was coming from an 18-hectare cannabis plantation housed in some nearby industrial greenhouses. But this was no black market operation: the premises were owned by British Sugar and the cannabis was being grown under licence from the Home Office. Nor was it a small gig: experts say that the Downham Market operation (which continues to this day) probably produces more than 90 tonnes of legal cannabis each year.

Of course, cannabis remains a strictly prohibited substance in Britain, having been upgraded to a class B drug (with possession punishable by five years in prison) by the last Labour government. How, then, is a FTSE 100 company involved in harvesting gargantuan amounts of cannabis in the middle of East Anglia?

The truth is that Britain has a thriving ‘legal’ cannabis industry, which exists alongside the black market. It uses Home Office permissions, as well as some legal loopholes, to generate hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue each year — with full support from the British government, which takes a cut from the proceeds. Last year, a UN report revealed that the success of this venture had made Britain the biggest producer and exporter of legal cannabis in the world.

So when did it all begin? In 1998 a British biotech company called GW Pharmaceuticals was approved by the Home Office to conduct clinical trials on using weed to help patients living with the most serious types of Multiple Sclerosis.

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