Medicinal Cannabis: Growing opportunities for the world economy

Thanks to its medicinal properties, cannabis has been increasingly gaining popularity around the globe. While some countries have introduced legislations and set up strategies in order to decriminalise the consumption of medicinal cannabis, others have acknowledged its role but are still awaiting further research confirming its capabilities to ease conditions and treat symptoms.

Nonetheless, due to high demand for medicinal cannabis and CBD products, hemp seems to be the next emerging market consequently contributing to the growth of the global economy.

Europe setting standards in cannabis production

With the recent wave of legislation regarding cannabis-based products, it is believed that the European market holds a key position both in medicinal and retail cannabis. This is due to a combination of variables such as population growth, GDP, national healthcare, and tarditional use in many countries, making Europe an attractive market for global producers.

For instance, in 2017 Germany signed a law that allows the use of the cannabis plant. This would in turn allow healthcare professionals to prescribe medicinal cannabis products to patients suffering from severe health issues such as chronic pain, vomiting, and nausea.

In 2013, Czech Republic legalised medical marijuana for patients suffering from chronic pain, epilepsy, chemotherapy induced side effects, and other severe disease indications. Moreover, the law allows patients with marijuana prescriptions to purchase the medicinal marijuana from pharmacies.

However, cultivation of marijuana in not allowed in the country, therefore suppliers need to import medicinal cannabis from other economies. This implies that a huge potential for growth of the medicinal cannabis industry in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

So far, the European Union national regulators have struggled to get to grips with the regulation of cannabidiol products, which has proven difficult given that CBD is not a scheduled controlled substance, hemp food products were historically consumed, and extracts of the plant were manipulated for use in medicines and many other applications.

The two cannabinoids — delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are most often used in the treatment of certain diseases or easing of certain health conditions such as pain, blood pressure, memory, concentration, appetite, sensory stimulus, muscular problems, and seizures.

European standards are now the benchmark for market entry, and Europe has an opportunity to lead the way in establishing sensible regulatory systems that provide safe access to appropriate products, while not unnecessarily burdening what has been a historically widely-consumed product.

Medicinal Cannabis in UK: access to treatment still an ongoing issue

Although the government announced the legislation of medicinal cannabis for patients via NHS prescription in November last year, the high expectations among the public of the benefits of medicinal cannabis are not being met. Doctors are unwilling to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients based on the claim that there is still little evidence due to lack of clinical trials.

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, said: “Although the recent changes to government policy were welcomed, there was a failure to communicate what this would mean in practice for the availability of medicinal cannabis.”

Although the recent changes to government policy from schedule 1 to schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, making it far easier to carry out trials into medicinal cannabis were welcomed, there was a failure to communicate what this would mean in practice for the availability of medicinal cannabis.

She added: “Expectations were unfairly raised that these products would become widely and readily available, and there needs to be far clearer communication that this is not the case.”

It remains to see whether the UK, like the rest of Europe, will take a more proactive stance on implementing the practical availability of medicinal cannabis.

Medical cannabis is gaining momentum in Asia

At the moment, many Asian countries are softening their approach to cannabis, but the plant remains illegal in the majority of Asian nations.

Seoul and Bangkok look to be leading the way in the normalisation and legalisation of medical marijuana with government licenses. However, after Thailand’s legalisation of medical cannabis in February, it is currently the only Asian country that has fully legalised medicinal cannabis.

Some experts predict that other Southeast Asian countries may move towards decriminalising the plant. South Korea surprised many by being the first East Asian nation to legalise medical marijuana last November.

In the same month, Japan approved clinical trials for the cannabis compound Epidiolex, a CBD oral solution used in treating epileptic patients. Market experts argue that due to Japan’s increasing aging population, it is likely to become a big consumer of medicinal cannabis.

Even famously strict-on-drugs nations including Singapore and China have been involved in research into medical applications for cannabis. In fact, China is not only involved in the research but also heavily in production. Asia’s largest economy currently grows nearly half the world’s legal hemp, a strain of cannabis that contains almost no hallucinogens, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

Hanma Investment Group (HMI) is the first company to receive permission to extract CBD in China. The country’s largest hemp production firm has been advocating for the benefits of the plant and trying to change the negative connotation most Chinese people hold towards it. The company currently exports 90% of its production, mostly to the United States, Germany, the U.K., the Netherlands, and increasingly to Japan.

”(Chinese) people’s perception of cannabis is no longer as negative as before. We have been reiterating the uses cannabis can be utilised in the medical and health sector,” Tan Xi, HMI’s president, told CNBC in a Chinese-language text message.

The global legal marijuana market — including recreational use — was estimated to be worth $13.8 billion last year and is projected to reach $66.3 billion by the end of 2025, according to a 2018 report from California-based market research firm Grand View Research, making medicinal cannabis an increasingly significant contributor to the world’s economy.

Medicinal cannabis makes strides in the UK but access to treatment needs improvement

In November last year, the government announced the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in the UK for patients via NHS prescription. Since then, the UK’s medicinal cannabis market has boomed, attracting media attention and international investment.

The move prompted the opening of the UK’s first cannabis clinic in the Greater Manchester area earlier in March, offering treatments for patients suffering from chronic pain and other severe neurological or psychiatric conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana.

Even more unexpected sources have shown interest in entering the booming cannabis market: the FT has reported that the Church of England is considering investments in medical marijuana and relaxing existing bans. The CofE has a 12.6 billion pound investment portfolio.

On 24 January 2019, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) sent a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations recommending that cannabis and associated substances be rescheduled in the international drug control framework to facilitate the trade of these substances for medicinal and scientific purposes.

At least 30 countries and 33 US states have now legalised medicinal cannabis, a trend which continues to spread globally. Research by Prohibition Partners and the Davos World Economic Forum pointed towards Europe’s medical cannabis market doubling in size in 2019.

The European Union has been one of the institutions at the forefront of making medicinal marijuana available. Over two years ago, the German parliament approved the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use. This marked the beginning of a Europe-wide wave of legalisation following in Germany’s footsteps.

In Germany, around 40,000 patients have already been prescribed cannabis-based prescription drugs, which amounted to more than 30 Million EUR revenues in the first half of 2018, making the country one of the three largest medical cannabis markets in Europe, along with the Netherlands and Italy.

Malta, one of the most innovative nations in Europe, has implemented some new laws and now allows the licensed growing and export of cannabis to other European countries.

The latest nation to embrace the opportunities offered by medicinal cannabis is Gibraltar. In a recent announcement, the government revealed it wants to establish a “world class ecosystem” for medicinal cannabis research in Gibraltar and will consider licensing “a select, highly reputable and well-resourced” group of investors in the sector.

While European countries seem to be progressing in the sector, eight months after formal legalisation, the reality does not quite match up to expectation. Patients in the UK are reportedly experiencing numerous problems accessing medicinal marijuana, as despite legislation being in place, the system is not yet fully responsive to patients’ needs.

Since the legalisation, many NHS patients have been denied access to cannabis treatments, blamed on slow bureaucracy. Official figures are not available but the number of NHS prescriptions has been low, perhaps less than 100, reported the Independent.

Currently in the UK, there is no dedicated medicinal cannabis regulatory system, making the drug harder to access. Cannabis products are only available on the NHS labelled as “specials”, which can only be prescribed after other types of treatment have been tried. The pharmacies distributing cannabis medical products also need a special licence, further narrowing the avenues of access.

These barriers highlight the lag between the different set of legislations involved in bringing cannabis-based medicines to the hands of patients. “We knew there would be a period where the education system needed developing for health professionals — but this has not yet been rolled out, and we don’t know how long it will take, or how responsive they will be,” said Henry Fisher, chief scientific officer at Hanway Associates, a cannabis consultancy firm, to Wired UK.

Nonetheless, this seems to be a common pathway countries go through when they change their regulation on the matter, until we bridge between policies and user access: “We’re hoping that individual doctors will prescribe, and see that once they’ve done it once, and it’s worked, so it’s a useful medicine. Then it will pick up: for example, in Germany, it took two or three years for the medical profession to catch up,” added Michael Barnes, a neurologist and cannabis expert.