“Medicinal cannabis in the UK could be a Great British success story” – interview with former HM Dan Poulter MP

25th October 2021

With his recent column in The Times, Former Health Minister Dan Poulter MP has become one of the most influential figures in British politics who is arguing for cannabis policy reforms in the UK.

We spoke with the politician, who is also currently working as an NHSpsychiatrist and a Non-Executive Director for Kanabo, in an interview in which he reiterated that the UK must act quickly to make medical cannabis more widely available so that the millions of people in need can be treated accordingly. 

Dr Poulter also talks about the status of recreational cannabis, game-changing ideas, and our place in the global cannabis market:

How much power did you have as Health Minister in terms of lobbying the government to change its cannabis policy?

At the time, issues relating to cannabis policy were primarily (and in my view wrongly) determined by the Home Office.

Do you think you did everything you could as Health Minister to change the conversation about cannabis in the UK? What would you do now if you were in the same position?

Since my time as a health minister, there has been a growing recognition in the UK of the potential of cannabis as a medicine. This now makes it much easier for health ministers to encourage and facilitate more research into medicinal uses for cannabis, and to work proactively to promote cannabis research within the UK life sciences strategy.

That is something I welcome. Certainly, as part of the post pandemic economic recovery, medicinal cannabis presents a tremendous opportunity for the UK.

One of your ideas was to introduce a minister for drugs policy. Can you talk about that? Writing a column in the Times is great but would you consider making a case for it for those at No 10?

For me, the case for a drugs minister is compelling.

Firstly, the scheduling of cannabis is a problem. Currently, schedule 2 drugs like opiates and cannabis are subject to onerous full controlled drugs requirements making cannabis medicines difficult to prescribe. To simplify this process for medical professionals, medical cannabis should be reclassified to a schedule 4 drug.

Then we need to remove the requirement that only doctors on the specialist register can prescribe cannabis medicines. GPs and other prescribers should be able to prescribe cannabis medicines to their patients when they decide it could help address an issue. They are on the front line and need to be empowered to make these decisions.

Lastly, there needs to be a shift in focus towards health, so we need to take the regulation of cannabis medicines and CBD products away from the Home Office. This is now an issue that needs a dedicated drugs minister and department responsible for reviewing all of these issues around regulation and how we move forward. But move forward we must. There are thousands of people out there who could be getting relief from their pain.

What’s the mood in the House of Commons now? Do you hear any sort of “noise” from MPs talking about cannabis policies/reforms? Are there any cross-party talks on the matter?

Over the past few years, medicinal cannabis has become more of a mainstream conversation. You have Billy Caldwell and others who have launched high profile campaigns to be able to get access to medicinal cannabis and now we have to have the conversation about making it available on the NHS, not just on private prescriptions.

Whilst I can’t speak for other MPs, I definitely sense the tide is turning across all sides of the House. For example, in September, there was a House of Commons debate on medicinal cannabis, which was well attended and demonstrated a strong cross party support base for law changes that would better facilitate patient access to cannabis medicines.

Don’t you think the UK makes a big mistake by delaying addressing the cannabis question?

I believe there is now action being taken within the government, which is a positive step. Last summer saw the establishment of a Brexit opportunities task force to consider and implement much needed reforms to the UK medicinal cannabis market. 

The Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) is making recommendations to the Prime Minister on how the UK can reshape regulation and seize new opportunities from Brexit – including changes to the cannabis sector. The real irony here is that the UK is the largest producer of cannabis for medical and research purposes in the world, according to the UN, but an outdated regulatory framework means that we are holding back the potential of the UK’s own medicinal cannabis industry. 

It is a sector that could not only create thousands of jobs but millions of pounds for UK PLC.

Will we ever catch up with the US? 

The market in the US is much more mature and further forward than the UK so I don’t believe we will catch up as such, just because of how much the market there has developed. That said, I believe the UK should be following the example of the US and seizing the opportunity to become the European hub of cannabis. If we don’t, countries like Germany will.

There’s no doubt that the economic benefits of opening up the UK cannabis market are immense. According to a report in December 2020 by market intelligence firm Prohibition Partners, the UK’s medicinal cannabis market is expected to reach US$1.3bn in value by 2024. Regulatory control needs to move to the Department of Health and Social Care and its arm’s length regulatory bodies. If we are serious about making a success of Brexit, then removing the regulations that are holding back the medicinal cannabis market in the UK would be a good start.

Medicinal cannabis in the UK could be a Great British success story. For the benefit of my patients and for the future good of UK PLC, let’s hope the Government listens to the advice of the Brexit Opportunities Unit.

What restricts the government from changing the law around recreational and medical cannabis in the UK? Is it only “part of party politics?” – Hundreds of studies proved that prohibition doesn’t work.

It is important to distinguish between the medicinal use of cannabis and the broader debate about the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs and/or the legalisation of the recreational use of cannabis.

As a working NHS psychiatrist who is always looking at alternative treatments and medicines, I have studied the research around cannabis extensively. There is growing and increasingly strong evidence that cannabis products have a multitude of medical benefits including treating chronic pain, reducing nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy, and increasingly, to treat people experiencing poor sleep and anxiety.

We should also consider the fact that the UK is facing increased demand for mental health services caused by lockdowns and the economic effects of the pandemic, so this issue will only continue to grow.

When do you see cannabis being legalised in the UK? Do you see it happening before the next general election? Or, could it be part of the government’s manifesto for 2024?

I do not believe the recreational use of cannabis will be legalised before the next General Election. What I hope to see in the next party manifestos is a commitment to setting up a Royal Commission to properly evaluate drugs policy in the UK which should include proper and full consideration of decriminalisation and legalisation.

What happens if the government won’t legalise cannabis and make medical cannabis widely accessible in the next five years? Would you see that as an irreversible mistake on our part while Europe is running past us?

If this were to happen, I believe the UK will be left behind by other countries in Europe. Just look at Germany and the availability of medical cannabis. But whilst we drag our feet, the people that are suffering are patients in need. This is the real impact the lack of action has.

Now we have left the EU, what Britain does have on our side is the freedom to make our decisions. We now have the power to change laws and make cannabis more widely available. Many medicines have a strong research base for their use, but UK regulations and regulators are sometimes slow to support their use, and this is also true of cannabis medicines. 

We’ve seen with the UK’s world leading vaccine rollout that regulators can move quickly when needed – the same needs to now happen with cannabis.

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