Renowned medical cannabis activist, Jeff Ditchfield opens up about his 20-year stint in the medical cannabis space – from growing cannabis for a friend with MS, to launching Bud Buddies, an organisation that provides medical cannabis to the seriously ill.
As one of the early proponents of medical cannabis in the early 2000s, Jeff Ditchfield founded Bud Buddies, an organisation that helped thousands of patients access medical cannabis.
Twenty years and several arrests later, he has turned his attention to Jamaica, a country with a rich history of cannabis use and cultivation.
Speaking via Zoom from a bar on the coast, Jeff offered Cannabis Health a glimpse into his two-decade fight against cannabis prohibition and explains what drove him to risk 14 years in prison to help people access the plant.
A friend in need
Prior to starting out on his journey into the world of medical cannabis, Jeff had only encountered the drug a handful of times. Like many people, he dabbled with weed in his teenage years, smoking a joint in his hometown of Chester in 1976. According to Jeff, it contained “the worst form of hash you could get”.
“I think I smoked about half a joint and that was my experience [with cannabis] until the year 2000,” he said.
Twenty-five years after his first encounter with the plant, Jeff was visiting a friend who suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS) and was self-medicating with cannabis to manage her symptoms.
“I knew she consumed cannabis to help with her MS, but I had never really given it much thought until I met her,” Jeff said.
“I hadn’t seen her for a few months and she looked terrible.”
He was shocked to hear that his friend, who he describes as a “vulnerable person in a wheelchair”, had recently been robbed at knifepoint after going out at night in Liverpool in an attempt to source cannabis.
Having just sold his successful transport business and at a loose end, Jeff saw an opportunity to help her access this ‘medicine’.
“Here was a friend of mine, someone who is vulnerable, going up and down the Dock Road in Liverpool, going up to strangers in pubs asking if she can buy some weed because her regular dealer who used to get her medicine had been locked up,” Jeff said.
“I thought, ‘it’s a plant; it can’t be that hard to grow’ so I started growing it to help her out.”
His friend happened to be the chairperson of her local MS society. She told her friends, who also used cannabis to ease their symptoms, about her new supply and soon Jeff was receiving enquiries from other MS sufferers who were struggling to source good strains of cannabis.
Word travelled fast and he found himself being contacted by people with an array of health conditions, not just MS. He couldn’t keep up with the demand, but was determined to help as many people as he could.
“I was trying to think of a way whereby people could be supplied with the medicine they required without the trouble and hassle from the law, or indeed from criminals and the dangers caused by prohibition,” Jeff said.
“I realised that there was not a lot I could do on my own.”
The cannabis cafe
Inspired by the UK’s first cannabis cafe, The Dutch Experience in Stockport, Jeff opened Beggars Belief, a cafe and members-only cannabis club in Rhyl, North Wales, which ran from 2003 to 2007.
While The Dutch Experience was fully open about its selling of cannabis, emulating the coffee shops found across the Netherlands, Beggars Belief took a more cautious approach to protect its team and the people it helped.
The cafe consisted of two adjoining properties; one housed the Beggars Belief cafe which any member of the general public could walk into, and the other was a members-only area where people could go to access cannabis or learn about how to grow their own plants.
The private nature of the members-only area gave Jeff and his team a level of protection from law enforcement, however he was by no means unfamiliar with the local police officers.
“When they came into the public area of the Beggars Belief, there was nothing illegal going on,” Jeff said.
“There was a sign saying ‘members-only after this door’, implying what goes on without actually admitting to what goes on.
“We had police officers coming in, great community officers. In fact, we used to invite them in and offer them a free coffee. They’d always ask ‘what’s going on in the in the members’ area?’”
Jeff would give little away, but says he would “bait” them, inviting officers to become members if they wanted to find out about the club’s inner workings.
“They got the message that to go into the Beggars Belief members area, they needed a warrant,” he said.
“To get a warrant they needed evidence and me being just a little bit sarcastic wasn’t enough.”
It was here that he launched and ran Bud Buddies, a renowned non-profit organisation that has “grown organically” from supplying cannabis for his friend with MS to helping thousands of people gain access to medical-grade cannabis.
With little interest in making money from his work, Jeff supplies all his cannabis-based products free of charge.
“If someone comes to us with questions, we’re not trying to sell to them or give them anything necessarily, what we’re trying to do is guide them,” he explained.
Bud Buddies supplied cannabis to people suffering from a range of serious conditions including MS, epilepsy and cancer.
“I couldn’t plead guilty to an immoral law”
In 2004, Jeff was arrested for cannabis possession at Beggars Belief.
He pleaded not guilty at magistrates’ court before being tried at Chester Crown Court for possession, cultivation and intent to supply. He was facing 14 years in prison.
“I wasn’t going to plead guilty, I could not plead guilty to an immoral law. For me to plead guilty would be to admit that I was wrong and I couldn’t do that,” he said.
“The only thing I see being wrong is when we deny a person medicine that they need.”
To avoid criminal charges, Jeff successfully used the ‘defence of necessity’, which in short, permits the breaking of a law if it was broken to avoid a greater evil.
A jury found him not guilty, but the Attorney General disagreed with the verdict and reopened the case. Jeff found himself on bail for two and a half years waiting for his second trial to take place in 2007.
Although unable to use the defence of necessity, he again refused to plead guilty and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service.
In the same year as his second trial, Rhyl council decided they wanted Jeff and Beggars Belief out of their town.
“They made it quite clear that I was bringing Rhyl down,” Jeff said.
The council offered him £80,000 to buy the properties off of him, just £5,000 more than what he paid for several years ago. He went back to the council with a counteroffer of £250,000.
The council attempted to negotiate but Jeff refused to budge and around a week later, the council agreed to pay a quarter of a million pounds for the cafe – more than three times the original offer.
With the closing of Beggars Belief tying in with the end of Jeff’s trial at Crown Court, Bud Buddies decided to move its research and development to Spain, a country that was beginning to open up to the concept of medical cannabis. The organisation continues to operate from the country today.
Growing the evidence
Since launching Bud Buddies in 2001, Jeff and his team have collected detailed feedback from its members. He estimates that the organisation has up to 50,000 individual records from its members.
At this point, Bud Buddies had spent almost a decade tweaking and perfecting its medical cannabis products. This along with its extensive records of anecdotal feedback from patients meant the organisation was ideally placed for assisting the growing community of cannabis researchers in Spain.
In 2015, Bud Buddies raised €35,000 to conduct a study to compare the efficacy of whole plant extracts as an anti-cancer agent versus isolate or synthetic cannabinoids. The organisation also provides “feedback, guidance and suggestions” to researchers, primarily at Madrid Complutense University.
Although its administration and R&D efforts had moved, Bud Buddies has remained active in the UK. Since the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, some of the pressure has been taken off the organisation.
But with access still restricted, Jeff says he and his team are still being contacted by seriously ill people who do not have the funds or do not meet the requirements for a prescription.
Since 2014, Bud Buddies has directed its “scant” resources to assist parents of children with cancer which has now become its primary focus in the UK.
But despite the UK lifting restrictions, Jeff believes that the country continues to “move backwards”.
“The Home Office in the UK seems to be trying to come up with this narrative since 2018 that there are two different varieties of cannabis; safe cannabis which is prescribed by doctors [that] they approve of, and street cannabis which will make you mad,” Jeff said.
“The UK government has declared war on drugs, which is ridiculous – how do you declare war on an inanimate object?”
He continued: “What they mean is they have declared war on the consumers of drugs, but not all drugs. They’ve only declared war on the consumers of drugs that aren’t taxed on licensed. They haven’t declared war on the consumers of alcohol.
“But when I grow it in the UK to give to someone who’s dying of cancer, who’s 10 years old, for example, it’s a dangerous drug and I need to be locked up for 14 years.”
Intent to supply
Jeff was arrested once again in 2018, this time outside the Houses of Parliament while campaigning against the UK government’s approach to cannabis legislation.
He admitted to police officers that he was “in possession of cannabis oil with intent to supply the parent of a dying child”.
The Crown Prosecution Service had little faith in its ability to prosecute Jeff for this offence and dropped all charges.
For Jeff, Bud Buddies was never about simply supplying cannabis; his aim was to educate people and give people the knowledge they needed to become self-sufficient.
“One of our founding principles was that we look forward to the day when we naturally abolish Bud Buddies,” he said.
“That day will be when there is no need for Bud Buddies anymore because people will be able to either grow their own or get it from their local association or Cannabis Club or indeed, from the NHS.
“We set up Bud Buddies to empower people to supply themselves. I realised many, many years ago that if we could give people the knowledge they need to be self-sufficient, that knowledge can never be taken away from them.”
Writing the book on cannabis
It was this approach that led to Jeff writing the Medical Cannabis Guidebook; an “exhaustive” guide to cannabis cultivation, complete with legal advice and medical information. Published in 2014, it remains one of the most popular references for medical cannabis users.
Now he has turned his focus to Jamaica where he is working with the Caribbean Cannabis College in Kingston and a number of independent dispensaries and licensed cultivators.
“What I’m interested in at the moment is taking what Bud Buddies have learned through our experiences in the UK and combining that knowledge with the local Jamaican herbal remedies,” he explained.
Working with local herbalists, growers and cannabis experts, Jeff is continuing on his search for the perfect strains to produce the medicinal oils that have changed the lives of so many across the UK.
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