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23 April 2015

Paul Birch, Bebo founder: “I’ve been consuming [cannabis] since I was 23“

Laura Gozzi talks to Paul Birch, the Bebo founder turned party leader for Cista, the Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol party.

By Laura Gozzi

For somebody who has achieved so much in the past ten years and could comfortably rest on his laurels for the next fifty, Paul Birch is surprisingly restless, almost impatient. Sitting in his big, airy home in North London on a sunny morning, he is fidgety and disquieted as he outlines the manifesto of Cista (an acronym for Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol), the political party he set up in February of this year.

In 2005, along with his brother Michael and Michael’s wife Xochi, Birch founded the social network Bebo, which became wildly successful while Facebook was still limited to students; the website was later sold to AOL for $850 million. A couple of tech ventures and ten years later, Paul Birch decided, only three months before the General Election, to dedicate himself to the founding (and funding) of a political party that would strive to change the “farcical” drug policies in the UK – and so Cista was born, “quite late in the day,” he admits, “but in time”.

“I got interested in the UK drugs policy and understood it’s quite silly, what we’ve got and what we continue to have, based on the information that’s available,” Birch says, citing huge “levels of ignorance” that surround cannabis consumption. According to its manifesto, Cista’s chief proposal is “a new approach to drug reform, starting with cannabis, one that is evidence-based, cross-party, humane and non-partisan.”

The model is largely inspired by the American states that have legalised the sale of cannabis, as well as European countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal that have policies of non-enforcement and decriminalisation which Birch greatly admirers. A dispassionate interlocutor is naturally led to ask whether Birch himself smokes cannabis: he does, but makes a point of labelling himself a “consumer, not a user.”

“I’ve been consuming [cannabis] since I was 23 – my personal use I’d describe as purely recreational, but a lot of people that got involved with the party have a medical connection, personal or from someone in their immediate family.” Indeed, the Cista political broadcast was first aired in Northern Ireland last week and focused solely on the medicinal qualities of cannabis. The four-and-a-half minute video was accompanied by dreary music and harrowing testimonies by chronic pain sufferers, with a voiceover announcing that “the war on drugs has become a war on people.”

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“The war on drugs has failed, and there are times in a war we need to accept defeat, when it’s over – and it’s over for the current policies. They’ve given them time to run, and they’ve run their course,” says Birch. “We need to get to a regulation model where cannabis and other drugs are treated in a manner similar to alcohol and entirely regulated, rather than pseudo-control at arm’s length with the police force and the criminal justice system.”

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Cista has put forward a wealth of arguments in support of legalisation of cannabis, ranging from financial (Birch has said that the UK could gain £900 billion in tax duties) to social benefits (jobs would be created and human trafficking would decrease). Why is it, then, that the issue of cannabis legalisation is still so delicate in the mind of the public?

“It’s difficult for [people] to get the right information, unless you spend hours on the internet researching and reading stuff and you just believe what you see in the media…” Birch raises his voice – it is when talking about the media that he becomes most incensed. “People are very confused. A significant number of people believe cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol – certainly from a mental health perspective. But they just picked one particular report out of all the ones that have been published,” he argues.

Birch says that the debate about cannabis and mental health issues is “mostly a UK thing… it’s because there’s one or two researchers in London that get their funding to do this, have these interests publicised – and the media support their story line.” Correlations also exist between tobacco and alcohol and mental issues, Birch says, and researchers have no more evidence for cannabis than they have for the other two. “But when you read the stories and the way they’re written it’s like, oh, you haven’t actually said there’s a correlation or causation, but you really strongly imply so. And the reader will totally take that as yes, there’s evidence for causation.”

What do cases such as Jon Snow’s televised first time smoking cannabis do to Cista’s cause? Birch rubs his forehead and sighs. “It’s not overly helpful,” he says, stating that Channel 4 would not give as much exposure to what he calls ‘the real message.’ “We have to fight it step by step.” He also adds that it’s important to remember that what Jon Snow smoked in the Channel 4 documentary was skunk, the most potent type of cannabis, and that judging the drug’s effects based on that episode would be disingenuous: “It’s like when you give a bottle of vodka to someone who doesn’t really drink, and you see what mess they get into.”

This, presumably, is the kind of information that Birch wants to put out so that people can make “informed and educated decisions.” In a regulated drug market, cannabis products would be labelled, making them safer; one argument that Birch keeps coming back to is that of the parallels between the current drug laws and Prohibition, at least in terms of the consequences of the ban of substances.

As soon as at the obligatory “gateway drug” question comes up, Birch gets impatient: “Cannabis is only a gateway drug if it’s sold on the illegal market. If you go buy it from a dealer there’s a real chance that at some point he will offer you harder drugs.”

Back to politics. What would Birch say to the people who argue that there are more pressing issues for Britain to deal with before it tackles drug legislation? “You can always make that argument, but this particular issue has been sitting on a shelf for over thirty years now, and it’s not even that difficult or expensive to deal with…. We campaign for a Royal Commission to conduct an independent inquiry, and that’s the gold standard for impartiality, really.”

Birch seems utterly unfazed by his new role as chairman of a political party, so I ask how far he thinks Cista can and will go. “Well, we hope we can disband in the near future… But I’m not massively confident – the only way the government is going to do something significant is if the Lib Dems become part of a coalition and they put this on the list of things they insist have to get done, but it’s unlikely to happen. But we’ll carry on, and I’m sure that in my lifetime we’ll get there. I’m 100% confident.”

The Lib Dems have been outspoken about their demands for an urgent reform of the drugs policy, with their manifesto echoing many of the demands that Cista is putting forward. Birch says that Cista will try and expand especially in Northern Ireland and Scotland, whose Assembly and Parliament are both holding elections in 2016. “My understanding is there’s a real chance that we can get someone elected in Belfast, where we’ve already had the biggest penetration – I guess this time we hit a perfect wave.”

And Scotland? “There are a lot of people looking for an alternative up there, so that makes it quite attractive for us. Part of our argument [in 2016] is going to be: if you want to ask for more independence, that’s fine – but ask after you’ve used the powers you’ve already got rather than asking for more right away. If you can do small progressive things with the drug policy, then you can have an argument for asking for more power.”

Birch has children, and he firmly says that the choice of whether or not to consume cannabis will be theirs once they are 18. What kind of world does he hope they’ll be living in, drugs-wise – other than cannabis? “I don’t think people need an infinite choice of recreational drugs, but they need a bit more choice than they’ve got at the moment. I mean, thousands of choices are being restrained to three: alcohol, tobacco and coffee. That’s insane. When people start looking outside of those three then they start going into the potentially risky weird new ones that are out there.”

After a pause, he adds: “We live in a society that’s all about persuading people to be smart and making individual choices, but in this particular case apparently you’re not supposed to.”

Birch lights up when asked about the public reaction to the Cista campaign, which included traditional leafleting and door knocking. He says independent businesses in Camden have responded favourably to Cista posters – “we wouldn’t go ask Sainsbury’s, though” – and he sees great promise in some of the party’s new representatives. Many are in their mid-twenties – “we also have a couple of 18 year olds, which is amazing” – and overwhelmingly male, which Birch quickly points out is merely a reflection of the applicants ratio and “something we’ll aim to change… It’s just the nature of this… sector, women are less involved.”

Cista have had 1300 members sign up through their website in the past two months, and Birch is hoping to get to 10,000 in the next 12 months; the majority, it is predicted, will be young. Birch admits, almost reluctantly, that there is no secret to becoming popular with the younger generations: in Cista’s case, it is the party’s core message that attracts them.

This isn’t an inherently negative thing at a time when some of the bigger parties are struggling to appeal to young voters. Birch says that some of the young representatives of his party are now getting beginning to participate in town hall meetings and getting involved in broader community issues. He believes that some of them have a real chance to go far.

I ask whether, despite the controversies, the misunderstandings and the misgivings, and regardless of its future, Cista might have the long-lasting positive effect of being a gateway party into politics for Britain’s apolitical generation. Birch pauses and thinks; he looks relaxed for the first time. “A gateway into politics! Yes. I like that.” He smiles. “You know, you should come work for us!”