Billy Caldwell may have changed public opinion about cannabis forever. This is the inside story from his campaign team.
By Paul North,
On a late summer afternoon in June 2018, a cab was racing across London to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital carrying a team of campaigners who hoped to change the law to help a sick boy. But their excitement and sense of urgency had been replaced by a feeling of dread.
Twelve-year-old Billy Caldwell, from County Tyrone, was in the middle of another life-threatening seizure. Billy’s medication – a form of cannabis oil illegal in the UK but prescribed by a doctor in Canada earlier that week – remained locked away a few miles down the road at the Home Office. The government was holding its nerve.
I was in the cab. As the team informed the press of the severity of Billy’s condition, the potentially fatal consequences if our campaign were to fail began to hit home.
Thankfully, the campaign of Charlotte Caldwell and her son, Billy, who has severe autism and epilepsy, succeeded where others had tried and failed. Their campaign led to arguably the biggest reform of our drug laws in recent times: on 1 November 2018, it became legal to prescribe cannabis on the NHS to patients in the UK. While there is a great deal of work to do (the current guidelines still prevent Billy from obtaining in the UK the cannabis oil that he needs to stop his seizures), the walls of resistance seem to have crumbled. Legal use of medicinal cannabis is a reality.
Public support for legalising recreational cannabis use appears to be growing. A YouGov poll in May 2018 found 43% of people in the UK supported cannabis legalisation – a modest result considering the years of lobbying and campaigning by various drug-reform thinktanks and activists. But, just five months later, in October, a Populus poll found 59% of the public supported cannabis legalisation.
The campaign to legalise medicinal cannabis in the UK seems to have contributed to the new mood.
CONFRONTATION AT CUSTOMS
The director of the Caldwell campaign, Steve Moore, who has worked in government and political campaigning for over 20 years, knew how to deploy the charismatic, determined and resilient Charlotte Caldwell.
In June 2018, the UK government revoked the prescription, unknowingly supplied illegally by a local GP, that gave Billy access to his cannabis-based medication, imported from Canada.
Knowing that Billy’s remaining medication would run out in weeks and his life-threatening seizures would return, Charlotte came to Steve in desperation. It was quickly agreed she would fly to Canada and legally obtain a cannabis-based medicine for Billy, illegal in the UK, which she would bring back to Heathrow and declare at customs.
Charlotte deliberately left the government with two options: follow the law and confiscate the potentially life-saving medication (administration of which reduced Billy’s seizures from around 100 a day to zero) or allow her to bring the medication into the UK, opening the door for other families to do the same.
What made the decision seem all the more monumental was the assembly of every major news crew in the country on the other side of the arrivals gate. While customs officials sat considering what to do with the imported cannabis medication, Steve had assembled at least eight news teams at the gate and had flown into Heathrow other families facing a similar struggle to Charlotte and Billy’s.
Halfway through the ensuing press conference, Steve took a call from the Home Office, asking him and Charlotte to meet with the minister for policing, Nick Hurd. And so began the second stage of the campaign, during which the danger Billy was in and Charlotte’s struggle were highlighted to the media at every opportunity.
A Twitter account was activated that provided constant updates on Billy’s condition. Charlotte appeared on virtually every television sofa in London, and newspapers splashed the story on their front pages.
We got a strong sense that the media and public were behind Billy. After the Home Office eventually agreed that Billy could be given the cannabis oil, and his condition improved, he walked out in front of the press pack holding Charlotte’s hand. The whole nation could see how well he was now doing.
Steve knew that media exposure was paramount, so he made sure the story didn’t stagnate or become tied to one particular news outlet.
“A key element in the success of this campaign was the way in which we ensured Charlotte’s story was constantly moving across all of the key media outlets,” he says. “If a powerful campaign like Charlotte’s becomes stuck with one broadcaster, no one else wants to cover it. My strategy was to constantly find new angles to her story and ensure they were given to different media contacts around the clock.”
Charlotte possessed the skills required for the incredibly demanding job of appearing in the media while Billy’s condition became increasingly problematic and worrying. “Charlotte herself was a major factor,” says Steve. “She was fearless, determined and articulate. We had no need to wait or look for celebrity endorsements – Billy and Charlotte were the celebrities of the campaign and drove it forward relentlessly.”
CONSTRUCTIVE, NOT DISRUPTIVE
The campaign’s effectiveness was a result not only of the strength of its narrative, but also the way in which it united different political ideologies.
Anyone could empathise with Billy’s story, regardless of their political beliefs. The campaign was also designed to be constructive and to engage the government, rather than to be provocative and disruptive. Tweets and press releases were quickly issued in response to the Home Office when it took positive or negative action.
The campaign also provided the newly appointed home secretary, Sajid Javid, with an opportunity to show he could be dynamic and compassionate.
AN INTERNATIONAL ISSUE
Governments outside the UK are shifting public perceptions of cannabis too. In October, Canada legalised recreational cannabis across all its 10 provinces and three territories. Blair Gibbs, a cannabis policy expert who lives in Canada, believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s framing of the issue was key to garnering support for the change.
“The legislation was deliberately framed as a responsible and serious attempt to protect children and improve public health – not a move to promote the drug, build a consumer industry or increase personal freedom,” Gibbs says.
“This approach was important to win over middle-class families and other skeptical groups, who wanted reassurance that this would actually make Canadians safer – hence the toughening of criminal penalties for under -age sales and trafficking, and more money for the cops to enforce stricter impaired-driving laws.”
Gibbs also draws attention to how the emerging cannabis industry in Canada is changing the way the product is positioned, understood and used.
“All around there is a burgeoning cannabis lifestyle industry in the arts, and especially print and online media, that is trying to normalise the use of cannabis as a civilised alternative to alcohol. This is a deliberate attempt to distance the drug from the ‘stoner’ stereotype, so that it is seen as a choice consistent with a health-conscious lifestyle among responsible adults.
“That pitch will only get louder as edible products are legalised in 2019 and consumers can access cannabis in many more ways, including beverages, which are probably the most disruptive part of this whole new industry and which will prove a major challenge to large alcohol companies. Eventually the perception of cannabis will be much more than smoking a joint.”
Dan Sutton, CEO of Canadian cannabis company Tantalus Labs, sees legalisation as an opportunity to demonstrate ‘the truth’ about cannabis. He acknowledges that communications professionals are grappling with the beliefs of two entrenched audiences: users and non-users.
“In Canada we see a tangible divide in the perception of risk between consumers of historically black-market cannabis and non-consumers,” he says. “Consumers of cannabinoids have a lower case of dependency than those of any other mind-altering substance, including coffee, and largely do not [share] the risk profile associated with other more normalised substances, such as alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs.
“Non-users often perceive risk that does not play out empirically, and legalisation has the capability to bring the truth about cannabis’s risk profile into their living rooms. Through first-hand experience, diversification of delivery methods and the consistent obligation for clean production, we can break down the entrenched misinformation about the true risks and rewards of cannabis use.”
HOW FAR WE’VE COME
For years, drug law reform has involved politicians and organisations in ideological bubbles criticising the ‘war on drugs’. Their arguments may seem convincing but public opinion is not changed simply through protest.
It is changed through communications that address fears, rather than dismissing them. It is changed by stories and narratives that inspire empathy and understanding in even the staunchest prohibitionists.
In late 2018, businessman Alan Sugar called in to Good Morning Britain, ITV’s flagship breakfast show, fronted by Piers Morgan, to talk about cannabis. After hearing knife crime being discussed on the show, he declared: “If [cannabis] were legalised, it would do away with a lot of gang culture – very similar to Prohibition in America many, many years ago back in the 1930s. When alcohol was legalised again, it just wiped out the crime and corruption.”
Lord Sugar’s short intervention that day shows how far the cannabis reform movement has come in just 12 months by uniting moral, recreational and social messages and inspiring debate. It remains to be seen whether future communications will lead to further change.
Paul North is director of external affairs at Volteface and was a member of Billy Caldwell’s campaign team.
A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q1 2019, with the title The Boy Who Changed the Law.