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UK medical cannabis sector renews call for reform to kickstart growth

The UK cannabis industry is renewing calls for further easing of restrictions on medical use of the drug, arguing that the sector is being held back from creating thousands of jobs as uptake remains low three years after legalisation.

Medicinal cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018 and is used across the world to treat health problems from epilepsy to pain and anxiety.

But a report backed by 16 industry bodies has labelled the UK’s medical marijuana sector “a mess”, detailing how since legalisation only three prescriptions have been administered by the NHS, with roughly 6,000 in the private sector. 

Mike Barnes, co-founder of cannabis-focused Maple Tree Consultancy and one of the paper’s authors, said the report aimed to put “a coherent case for why it would be useful to the UK economy if we actually developed a proper medical cannabis industry”. It is backed by an all-party parliamentary group chaired by MPs Jeff Smith and Crispin Blunt and will be sent to Westminster this week.

The report argues that less restrictive rules on how cannabis can be grown, imported and used would create a roughly £2bn industry, based on a 2019 YouGov study that suggested 1.4m people in the UK were already self-medicating using marijuana bought off the streets.

It also estimates, extrapolating from US states such as Florida where sales of medical cannabis have grown rapidly, that red tape has prevented the creation of tens of thousands of UK-based jobs, in areas such as cultivation and production.

The medical cannabis industry is separate from clinically tested pharmaceutical products that include cannabinoids, such as those produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, a UK sector pioneer that was this year bought by Ireland-based Jazz Pharmaceuticals in a $7.2bn deal.

Proposals in the report include that the UK government should make it easier to grow cannabis for medical use and allow the extraction of the cannabinoid CBD, which currently must be imported from abroad.

Pureis, one of the first CBD brands to have been officially approved in the UK, has had hopes to expand production in the country quashed after the Home Office blocked it from importing necessary raw materials, amid concerns over the cannabinoid THC, which produces a high.

CBD that does not leave users feeling high can be sold over the counter, but Pureis co-founder Lady Chanelle McCoy argued that officials were minded to treat all cannabis-derived products as one. “There is nobody in the Home Office who actually understands this,” she said.

The report also argues that general practitioners, rather than specialists, should be allowed to prescribe cannabis. Barnes said this was one of the most important proposals to kickstart the industry in the UK, which he argued has been tripped up as cannabis is treated as a pharmacological rather than a botanical product.

“You can’t really do a double-blind placebo study on a plant,” he said, arguing that medical bodies in the UK, which have remained sceptical towards cannabis, should recognise “the vast amount of real-world evidence, case studies and observational studies” on its benefits.

“If this was a plant we suddenly discovered, we wouldn’t have had these issues,” said Barnes, who campaigned for the legalisation of medical cannabis. “It is hangover stigma.”

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