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.