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Sunday
Sep152019

I ❤️ Bournemouth

I was reminded this morning how much I miss going to party conferences in Bournemouth.

It's been several years now because only the Lib Dems still go there, and the Lib Dem conference has never been a happy hunting ground for Forest.

In fact, it's ten years since we last organised an event at a Lib Dem conference (in Bournemouth, where else?) and we only did it then because it was in conjunction with Liberal Vision, a campaign group set up by Mark Littlewood (former head of press with the Lib Dems) in the days before he became director-general of the IEA.

Together we hosted a panel discussion followed by a drinks party. Title of the discussion was 'Politics and Prohibition – how liberals can fight back against the nanny state'.

Chaired by Mark, panellists were Tom Clougherty, policy director of the Adam Smith Institute, Lib Dem blogger Charlotte Gore, Liverpool councillor Colin Eldridge, psychologist and Lib Dem councillor Belinda Brookes-Gordon, and me. You can read about it here. Dick Puddlecote wrote about it too.

It followed several other Forest events in Bournemouth. Most successful was a drinks reception attended by 400 people in the ballroom of the Royal Bath Hotel in 2006.

Highlight of the evening was a mock police raid with sirens and flashing blue lights that ended with the speaker, Boisdale's Ranald Macdonald, being 'arrested' and led from the stage in handcuffs while every guest sang 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.

Another speaker that night was Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas and now MEP for the Brexit party. We were all staying in another hotel overlooking the beach and I can still see everyone's rather stunned faces as we sat on a sunny terrace the following morning, drinking coffee and nursing hangovers.

The following year, a few months after the introduction of the smoking ban, 100+ guests joined us for a reception at the Labour conference in Bournemouth but it was far less successful. The ban meant that at least half our guests spent the evening in the garden outside and the speakers had to address a half empty room.

Returning to 2009, it was a particularly busy time and the morning after our event I had to catch an early morning flight from Bournemouth Airport to Edinburgh to attend a tobacco control conference organised by Holyrood magazine. (Again, you can read about it here.)

The problem was, I had driven to Bournemouth in my car so I had to fly back to Bournemouth the following day to pick it up before I could drive home to Cambridgeshire.

A few days later I had to return to the south coast because the 2009 Labour conference was in Brighton and we had organised an ad van to highlight the fact that 52 pubs were closing each week in the wake of the smoking ban. (See 'Forest at the Labour conference'.)

The week after that we were in Manchester for the Conservative conference (but that’s another story).

Anyway, I'm a bit jealous of delegates at the Lib Dem conference because a sunny autumn day in Bournemouth is not a bad place to be, especially if you're near the beach.

A favourite haunt of mine is the Westbeach cafe/restaurant overlooking the sea. You don't get this view in Birmingham or Manchester!

Photo courtesy Westbeach

Saturday
Sep142019

Last call

I appreciate that many of you will be pretty cynical about any tobacco-related ‘consultation’, and with good reason.

Nevertheless, we would welcome your participation because the response to consultations such this can influence future government policy.

Click here to respond.

Friday
Sep132019

Wham bam no thank you scam

I'm sure it's the same with you but hardly a day goes by without at least one automated telephone call inviting me to press the magic number '1'.

I've yet to do it but I'm under no illusion about what would happen if I did. I would be put through to someone who would inevitably ask for my bank or debit card details so they can relieve me of my savings.

Another popular scam is the call (often from the sub-continent) that informs you there is a problem with the Windows operating system on your PC. This leads to an offer to take virtual control of your computer so they can sort out the problem.

Sometimes, if I'm in a good mood and not very busy, I'll play along for a few minutes before revealing I've got a Mac and they are talking absolute shite. (At this point the phone normally goes dead.)

More often than not I'll just put the phone down at the start of the call. On very rare occasions I'll call them "crooks" and scream abuse down the line.

A couple of days ago I got a more threatening version of the 'press 1' scam when the automated voice told me I owed money to HMRC (which is not impossible) and a warrant had been issued for my arrest.

If I wanted to know why I was being arrested I was invited to 'press 1'.

I didn't, of course, but if this blog isn't updated for a while you'll know what has happened.

Anyway, a few minutes ago I received the email above. Apparently this site has been suspended but it seems to be working well enough for me to write and publish this post.

The sender is given as 'Squarespace Support'. Now I've used Squarespace Support in the past and their email address is 'support@squarespace.com'.

The address on this email however featured a completely different domain name.

I looked it up and what I found was a website for a business that had nothing to do with Squarespace or website hosting and publishing.

An obvious scam, then.

Nevertheless someone must be making money from all this because why else would they persist?

My biggest worry is that I inadvertently give away my online banking details and wake up to find my account no longer has any money in it.

In my top five list of fears that has replaced flying at number one. What's yours?

Thursday
Sep122019

Forest’s former office manager honoured in Theresa May’s resignation honours list!

Theresa May’s resignation honours list has sparked controversy but one award is richly deserved.

Jenny Sharkey, executive secretary to the former PM, has worked for May in the House of Commons since 2001.

Before that however she was office manager for ... Forest!

Jenny originally worked for my predecessor Marjorie Nicholson but stayed on for a further two years until she was offered what she called her “dream job”.

We were delighted for her then and we’re delighted for her now. In fact, an MBE for 18 years’ political and public service is probably the least she deserves.

Congratulations, Jenny, you’ve earned it!

(Full resignation honours list here.)

Above: Jenny, circa 2000. Below: seated bottom left, on board a Eurostar train travelling to Paris on No Smoking Day 1999.

Wednesday
Sep112019

On the march - PC brigade is now taking over the army

I was on BBC Radio York this morning responding to a story that was reported yesterday but was initially revealed on social media over the weekend.

According to BBC News:

Smoking and vaping is to be banned at the UK's only Army training centre for teenage recruits.

Hundreds of junior soldiers pass through the Army Foundation College (AFC) in Harrogate each year.

Its commanding officer Lt Col Richard Hall said it was "unacceptable" that "most recruits don't smoke on arrival, yet most do by graduation".

New recruits will be barred from smoking next week, with a complete ban on smoking and vaping on site by 2020.

In a statement, Lt Col Hall said the ban was in order to develop recruits' health and fitness.

He added: "I hope that this will discourage smoking amongst new recruits and reverse the recent trend we've seen in recruits taking up the habit."

As I explained to the presenter on BBC Radio York, it’s a slightly difficult subject for Forest to respond to because we don’t want to be accused of supporting 16 and 17-year-olds who smoke or vape.

Nevertheless, I did point out that it is not illegal to smoke or vape at 16 or 17. The law merely bans the sale of tobacco to under 18s.

Therefore, threatening to charge young soldiers for smoking (or vaping) seems to me rather unfair, if not a classic case of discrimination.

I suspect the ruling could be challenged in court but I’m not going to risk Forest’s money on an uncertain outcome, especially when such a case would win little public support and would be defended by the army with taxpayers’ money.

The point is, to be found guilty of a chargeable offence and have that on your army record could have an adverse effect on a young soldier’s career. Is smoking really such a terrible thing to do, even at 16 or 17?

Banning young recruits from smoking also ignores two major issues that affect young soldiers - boredom and stress. Prohibiting a habit that helps relieve those two factors doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you have a plan to replace it with something else.

On Twitter over the weekend Lt Col Richard Hall was keen to talk about “protecting” young people’s health. Others have suggested that recruits will be physically fitter and healthier if they don’t start smoking.

Really? When did ‘not smoking’ become a factor in being a physically fit soldier? Are there any studies - with groups of young soldiers who smoke pitted against young recruits who don’t smoke - that prove this point?

Smoking-related illnesses are, by and large, problems that affect people in later life, decades after they have left the army.

I’m not suggesting the army should have no interest in a soldier’s future welfare, but smoking is a matter of choice and I’m not aware of evidence that suggests it can seriously impair a soldier’s ability to do his job.

Talking of which, there is a certain irony, is there not, that within a year or two of joining the army young recruits may find themselves dodging bullets in a war zone. Oddly enough, the army seems fine about that!

Frankly, this seems to be yet another example of the middle class (in this case officers) dictating how the ‘plebs’ (aka the rank and file soldier) should live their lives.

And don’t think this is aimed exclusively at junior soldiers. As Lt Col Hall made clear on Twitter, from 2020 all soldiers will be banned from lighting up in front of recruits on camp.

In other words, it’s a Trojan horse. Eventually all soldiers, regardless of their age, will be barred from lighting up (except, perhaps, senior officers who will still be allowed to smoke a cigar with a glass of brandy in the officers’ mess).

The PC brigade is well and truly on the march. The army is their latest conquest.

Tuesday
Sep102019

Wanted: your views on the impact of the display ban and other anti-smoking laws

The government is currently inviting responses to a consultation on 'The impact of tobacco laws introduced between 2010 and 2016'.

Those laws are:

  • The Tobacco Advertising and Promotion (Display) (England) Regulations 2010
  • The Tobacco and Advertising (Specialist Tobacconists) (England) Regulations 2010
  • The Tobacco and Advertising (Display of Prices) (England) Regulations 2010
  • The Smoke-free (Private Vehicles) Regulations 2015
  • The Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations 2015

Questions include:

  • Do you think the display ban of tobacco in small and large shops has helped to reduce the number of children and young people smoking?
  • Do you think the tobacco display ban has encouraged and supported adult smokers to quit?
  • Is the display ban an effective way to protect children and young people from taking up smoking and supporting those who wish to quit?
  • Have the Smoke-free (Private Vehicles) Regulations helped prevent people from smoking in vehicles with children?
  • Do you believe prohibiting smoking in private vehicles is an effective way to protect children and young people from harms of tobacco and second-hand smoke?
  • Do you think the Nicotine Inhaling Products Regulations have helped prevent the sale of nicotine inhaling products, including e-cigarettes, to under 18s?
  • Has anyone else benefited from the age restriction and proxy (when an adult buys a product on behalf of a minor) purchasing ban on nicotine inhaling products?

The format is pretty simple. For example:

Do you think the tobacco display ban has encouraged and supported adult smokers to quit?

Yes, I think it has
No, I don’t think it has
I don’t know if it has or has not

I appreciate most of you will be pretty cynical about the outcome of any tobacco-related ‘consultation’, and with good reason. Nevertheless, we would welcome your participation.

To complete the online survey click here. Closing date is 15th September 2019.

Thank you!

Saturday
Sep072019

Canada’s cannabis ‘revolution’

When I was in Vancouver recently I visited a couple of cannabis stores. One was legal, the other was ... well, I’ll get on to that in a minute.

Canada, as you probably know, legalised the sale and consumption of cannabis last year.

A recent BBC documentary (Legalising Weed: Canada's Story) followed three MPs - David Lammy (Labour), Norman Lamb (Lib Dem) and Jonathan Djanogly (Conservative) - on a fact-finding ‘mission’ to see whether Britain should adopt a similar policy.

Lamb caused a minor stir by sampling, on film, a few drops of cannabis oil to ‘help’ him sleep.

According to the Guardian:

The cannabis oil tried by Lamb contains compound Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a psychoactive ingredient that makes it different and more potent than the legal cannabidiol (CBD oil). It can be prescribed for medicinal use but is difficult to access and parents have had difficulty importing it for their epileptic children.

Of the three MPs Djanogly was the most cautious about legalising cannabis in the UK but he didn’t dismiss the idea:

“I think we have got a lot to learn before the legalisation of recreational cannabis, which I think will happen at some point. I think we’re on a 10-to-15 year cycle, which would mirror what has happened in Canada.”

Also on the trip, which was organised by the advocacy group Volteface, was Chris Snowdon who subsequently wrote an excellent article for the Spectator (How Canada failed to smash the cannabis black market).

It began with this sublime introduction that still makes me laugh:

I had forgotten how much I disliked cannabis until I found myself under its influence, in the rain, trying and failing to find Toronto’s Union Train Station so I could get to the airport and go home. The plan had been to enhance my mood for a long journey, floating back to the UK in a higher state of consciousness. In practice, I just got confused, wet and was lucky to make my flight.

Thereafter Chris’s principal point seemed to be that, despite legalisation, the black market continues to flourish in Canada because the legal market is beset with restrictions and is significantly more expensive.

Having watched the documentary I too felt a bit underwhelmed. Despite legalisation not a great deal appears to have changed, partly because the market is so restricted.

As a result many existing consumers seem unwilling to abandon their previous, illicit, suppliers. Indeed, the scene I remember most was a group of people ordering cannabis from an illegal source and the drug being delivered to their door much like a takeaway pizza.

The delivery guy, I noticed, was carrying a motorcycle helmet so I imagine he arrived on a moped, Dominos style. Interestingly, he wasn’t in the least bit fazed by the sight of a camera crew recording the moment.

In case you’re wondering, my interest in the subject is purely professional!

From a Forest and freedom of choice perspective it makes sense to keep abreast of a drug that is edging towards mainstream acceptability and has an obvious connection with tobacco if you intend to smoke it.

Inhaled with a vapourizer it could also be viewed as a pleasurable and smokeless alternative to smoking, although there are significant differences between the effects of nicotine and cannabis that shouldn’t be overlooked.

(Update: As recent reports suggest, there are potential hazards in using illicit marijuana vaping products that consumers should be aware of, which is arguably a good reason to legalise them.)

Anyway, prior to that my interest had been sparked by a guest at Forest’s 40th anniversary dinner who I first met many years ago when he was working for a leading tobacco company. Today he’s a senior executive at a company investing globally in cannabis.

Meanwhile it’s not gone unnoticed that Imperial Brands (formerly Imperial Tobacco) has bought a stake in the Canadian Auxly Cannabis Group.

Likewise Altria, the US cigarette manufacturer that owns the Marlboro brand, last year bought ‘almost half’ of Cronos Group, a cannabis company in Toronto.

To ignore these developments, and the implications for consumers - including smokers - would be rather silly.

Unlicensed stores are closing following the legalisation of cannabis

Anyway, back to Canada.

Knowing very little about cannabis I needed an expert guide and who better than someone who moved from London to Vancouver last year and now works for a UK-based consultancy specialising in cannabis research.

We began by visiting a branch of City Cannabis Co which, as luck would have it, was a short walk from my hotel.

The windows were opaque but inside it was brightly lit with plain white walls, like a small pharmacy. Products including cannabis oils, dried cannabis flowers and ready-rolled joints in packs of one and three were displayed neatly on shelves or in glass cabinets.

Different strains of cannabis have names like Blue Cheese, Sour Diesel and Bubba Kush. Customers (or ‘guests’) were allowed to sniff samples of the flower but that was as far as it went.

Having travelled to Vancouver from Seattle where cannabis edibles are legal I was surprised there were no edible products for sale. It turned out they’re still prohibited in Canada although that will change in December.

Likewise vapourizers (vape pens) with pre-loaded cartridges of cannabis extract are also illegal in Canada although they too are expected to be legalised before the end of the year, recent reports notwithstanding.

The packaging, incidentally, was much like the packaging you’d see in a pharmacy. I noticed that the size of the packaging greatly exceeded the size of the ready-rolled joints and when I queried it they said it’s because of all the written instructions inside the box!

The staff were young, good-looking and keen to help without being in ‘sales’ mode. As a ‘guest’ I felt under no pressure to buy anything.

The set-up reminded me of Philip Morris’s iQOS stores which - if you’re familiar with them - bear a passing resemblance to an Apple Store, albeit much smaller.

What struck me was how normal it all was. The product was on display and although I was a bit bamboozled by all the information, there was nothing furtive about the experience.

The second ‘dispensary’ we visited was a rather different experience.

A few blocks from the City Cannabis store we were directed to an anonymous unit in a grim looking building where we were let in by an unsmiling bouncer who checked us over and nodded that it was OK for us to enter.

Inside we walked along a dimly lit corridor that felt more like a tunnel. At the end was a small, windowless room whose walls were painted a vibrant psychedelic orange.

Sitting in a corner on a cheap leather sofa, a customer was smoking a joint. A pungent aroma filled the room.

This was not a shop in any traditional sense. The only products I could see were in a tray under glass next to the ‘counter’. They included edibles and cannabis vape pens, both illegal under the current law.

Behind the counter two men in black t-shirts were friendly enough and happy to answer questions.

How, I asked them, were they able to stay in business?

The answer lay in their location which they said is close to an area where heroin addicts hang out. Compared to heroin, an illegal cannabis store is small beer so the authorities turn a blind eye.

Other unlicensed dispensaries aren’t so lucky and many have closed down. Meanwhile licensed stores are very tightly controlled. According to the City Cannabis website:

The BC Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) is the sole wholesale distributor of legal recreational cannabis, and purchases exclusively from government-approved suppliers. Our retail prices are based on standardized wholesale pricing and fee from the BCLDB, which all legal cannabis retailers must order from.

Products are manufactured, stored and distributed by Health Canada-approved suppliers, according to strict industry-wide regulations under the Cannabis Act. Cannabis products arrive at our locations in sealed packaging with standardized labels and amounts.

Cannabis cookie available, legally, in Seattle. Note the plain packaging!

Canada, of course, is not alone in legalising recreational cannabis. Uruguay and a number of American states have done the same.

Last month Luxembourg became the first country in Europe to legalise the sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational use.

Some seem to think it’s only a matter of time before the UK follows a similar path. Given the risk averse nature of Britain’s political class, and the current wars on tobacco, alcohol and sugar, I’m not so sure.

Moreover the outcome of the Canadian experiment with cannabis is far from settled.

Unlicensed stores may be closing down but thanks to stifling regulations the unregulated black market continues to flourish.

In Quebec there have been threats to raise the legal consumption age from 18 to 21 (in Vancouver it’s currently 19) and ban consumption in public places.

Sound familiar?

The reality is that the Canadian cannabis ‘revolution’ is tightly controlled. It’s certainly not the liberal nirvana some would have us believe.

Legal dispensaries are few in number - a dozen or so in Greater Vancouver (population 2.5 million).

Nevertheless, from my very brief visit, I can see that it has normalised the sale and consumption of cannabis to a degree currently unimaginable in the UK.

People talk quite openly about consuming cannabis. For many people it’s no different to relaxing with a glass of wine.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Sir Norman Lamb, one of the principal cheerleaders for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK, is standing down as an MP at the next election, whenever that might be (don’t hold your breath).

Without a strong advocate in Parliament, how are campaigners going to convince parliamentarians to change the law?

Either way it will interesting to see how the debate develops. Watch this space.

Friday
Sep062019

‘This game is mental!’

I missed the Dundee derby last Friday because of work.

Within 24 hours however a rather wonderful video appeared online that, more than any football video I have ever seen, made me feel as if I was there.

Filmed by a young Dunfermline supporter called Ben, it’s worth 15 minutes of your time, even if you don’t like the game.

And to those who query and occasionally mock the 800-mile round trips I make each season to watch a team I have supported since I was ten, here’s your answer.

The match starts around five minutes in but watch from the beginning because there’s a Gregory’s Girl feel about the introduction.

Scottish football, bloody hell.

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