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Bebo co-founder on marijuana, startups and politics

Since it was legalized in some parts of the US – the nascent marijuana market has made millions of dollars in tax revenue and kick-started a whole cannabis-based tech startup scene. As a co-founder of Bebo and leader of Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol [CISTA] party, Paul Birch is well-placed to say the UK is missing out on rewards of both.

“[Legalization could generate] £900 million in a short period of time, and drive down crime.” The CISTA party was formed by Birch in February of this year – just three months before the UK General Elections. “I came to realise the topic would be ignored by the mainstream political parties,” he says. “They don’t want to spend their political capital on it.” His party’s manifesto calls for “a new approach to drug reform, starting with cannabis, one that is evidence-based, cross-party, humane and non-partisan.”

Birch has a history of being an internet entrepreneur. He says he wasn’t involved with his brother Michael buying Bebo back for just $1 million in 2013 - after originally selling to AOL for $850 million just five years before - but says he likes what his brother has done to the new-look version. “Facebook is mainly what went wrong,” he claims, along with “Market dynamics.”Bebo might have been a victim of victim of change, but now Birch is trying to be a frontrunner of it.

For now the party’s funding is coming out of Birch’s own pockets – up to £100,000 so far according to the Telegraph – but he seems unworried about continuing to support the party, and plans to use crowdfunding in the future. He also doesn’t see himself as a politician in the classic sense, more of an advocate. “I don’t have to spin it, politicians don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “I’m just using the political system.”

Cannabis & technology: UK vs. US

In the US, the Cannabis startup scene is booming. Snoop Dogg - already an investor in the likes of Reddit and other tech firms - has founded a VC-firm to invest some $25 million in marijuana startups, and there are plenty of other funders giving money to this new industry. It’s easy to see a situation where in the not too distant future there will be large, established and well-funded US weed tech firms baying to move into the UK. “The longer we leave it, the harder it is for locals to set up against foreign rivals,” Birch warns.

So are we close to legalization in the UK? “I wouldn’t say I’m confident about legalization happening within this Parliament, but perhaps within ten years.” Birch says there’s a lag from the US in getting over to the UK, but it will be a big deal when full legalization gets to California and it reaches the major technology and news outlets there – the kinds of companies that the UK and UK media really take notice of.

UK elections

In the run up to the election, Birch attended hustings to get his message across in his Hackney South and Shoreditch [where else?] target constituency – a seat which Labour incumbent Meg Hillier retained. But considering the short amount of time the party has been around, it had a successful night at the polls; CISTA’s 8,419 votes across its 32 candidates was more than the BNP, Monster Raving Loony Party and even the technology-minded Pirate Party managed to garner.

“The party has done very well very quickly thanks to social media,” he says, citing the engagement and enthusiasm of CISTA’s followers as the reason they did so well against parties that in some cases have been around for decades. It wasn’t just externally CISTA embraced social media; internally the party has been using Slack. “We couldn’t have run a campaign without it,” Birch says. He is also in favour of e-voting, a system which many politicians are against despite the potential to increase participation. When asked whether other political parties are behind when it comes to technology, he isn’t as critical as one would expect. “There are always going to be laggards,” he says, but says most of them are now using Community Organizing Platform NationBuilder to run their campaigns.

While the European Parliament votes are too far away, CISTA’s current plans are to make further inroads over the course of the North Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London Mayoral elections. Even in the unlikely event a CISTA Mayoral candidate wins, Birch doesn’t think they would have the power to change the rules, they would be able to instruct the police to be more relaxed in their enforcement of marijuana laws. The party plans to have an open primary to select their candidate, but Birch says he doesn’t plan to run. Perhaps his ambitions are a little higher and are focused on Number 10.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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