Navigating the UK Cannabis Minefield

11th July 2019

Cannabis is not legal in the UK. But is that the bottom line? The UK ‘s position on Cannabis and Cannabis-based products is full of holes, certain to confuse the average person. The cannabis laws in the UK affect everything from the wide availability of high potency “skunk” on the street, to the unregulated CBD products on the market. One thing is for certain though: the current stance on the plant is not effective for anyone.

What UK Cannabis is used for

The most surprising factor of the Cannabis argument is that, embarrassingly, the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of medical Cannabis. Unsurprisingly, When this fact came to light in 2016, people were confused. Not least, because it has remained extremely difficult for UK patients to access the medicines, even since legalisation last year.

However, the Home Office stress that Cannabis in raw form is not exported from the UK. Most of the product being exported from the UK was Sativex – a Cannabis-based anti-spasticity medication used to treat some forms of Multiple Sclerosis. Sativex is legal in the UK, when prescribed by a specialist doctor for this purpose. Yet, it is not available on the NHS (except prudently in Wales), and prescriptions from private clinics are rare and very expensive.

It would be easy to feel that the Government was allowing big corporations and pharmaceuticals to take advantage of the (seemingly secret) industry, while the average person is unable to reap the benefits.


The latest development in the UK in regards to Sativex is the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence recommendations. In November, the medical authority recommended the use of Sativex to treat spasticity, when a patient has not responded to other treatments.

The 2018 Rescheduling

Following a number of high-profile patient cases last year, including Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell – two children who suffer from rare forms of Epilepsy – the Government gave in to pressure to reschedule Cannabis in the Misuse of Drugs Act 2001. The children’s parents had attempted to bring in Cannabis-based Medicinal Products (CBMPs), which they said dramatically reduced their children’s seizures, from other countries (Canada and the Netherlands). However, the medications had been confiscated, due to their illegal status in the UK.

The rescheduling (November 2018) was designed to make CBMPs more available to patients, where “conventional” treatment had not been successful. There was also an expectation that more clinical studies would be carried out, as Cannabis was easier to attain legally.

Clinical Studies

The NICE recommendations, published in November, express the need for continued research and clinical trials into the efficacy of Cannabis medications in treating different conditions. On the whole, clinical trial numbers in the UK have remained fairly low. However, Drug Science recently launched their Project TWENTY21, hoping to recruit 20,000 potential medical Cannabis patients by 2021. This will make it the largest patient database in Europe.

The opinion of the Select Committee on increased access to CBMPs is that Random Controlled Trials are needed. Many doctors also feel that without this evidence, they are not willing to prescribe. It has also become a concern that many pharmaceutical companies are hesitant to make their products available for clinical research.

Industry Implications

CBD Industry

Another side of the Cannabis conversation in the UK is the wide availability of CBD products. The Government has come under fire in this respect, as well, after evidence that the industry is massively under-regulated. The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) carried out a review of the industry, and concluded that intervention was needed on a legal, regulatory and industry level.

Former Policy Lead of the CMC, Blair Gibbs, stated:

“All consumers in the UK need and deserve to be safe, informed and lawful when they choose a CBD product.”

Despite the Cannabidiol industry in the UK being one of the biggest in Europe, the majority of the material used for the products is imported from elsewhere.

Hemp Industry

Considering the size of the ever-growing CBD industry, and the (award-winning) size of the legal cannabis industry, it is surprising that such stringent restrictions apply to the Industrial Hemp industry. Hemp farmers are allowed to harvest the seeds and fibre from the plant with a Home Office license. However, the CBD-rich leaves and flowers are almost always wasted. These restrictions hold back the potential of both the UK Hemp Industry and the UK CBD Industry.

So, a few things to be addressed? The country could benefit massively, not only in terms of health but also financially, from Cannabis Reform.


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