Could the UK be a leader in the medical cannabis industry?

Could the UK be a leader in the medical cannabis industry?
© iStock/LPETTET

The UK has emerged in an unlikely position of becoming a world leader in the medical cannabis industry, according to Professor Mike Barnes.

Cannabis stocks have soared on the back of Joe Biden’s electoral win and the passing of the MORE Act in the House of Representatives in the United States in December last year, with the market now estimated to be worth up to $124bn by 2028. Currently, the UK is one of the world’s largest exporters of medical cannabis, however, UK cannabis businesses which could help cement the country’s position are dealing with restrictive regulations that are hindering the industry’s development.

Health Europa’s digital editor, Stephanie Price, spoke to medical cannabis expert and neurologist, Professor Mike Barnes, of Maple Tree Consultancy about the UK’s potential to poise itself as a leader in the field and what the future might look like for medical cannabis in the UK.

Medical cannabis in the USA

America has been leading the way in adopting progressive cannabis policy, with states such as California having a legal market for nearly 20  years. Despite the MORE Act still needing to pass in the Senate, the picture is looking positive for the industry in the country, which is home to expert cultivators and extractors.

Biden has been lukewarm on the subject of cannabis – he is in favour of decriminalisation and pardoning of felonies, but he hasn’t come out straightforwardly to say legalise cannabis on a federal level. Overall, though, I’m very positive that cannabis is unstoppable in the states as more than half of the states allow medical cannabis and a number now allow recreationally,” says Barnes.

“The Federal Government cannot delay things much longer – and I think we will suddenly see an explosion of interest in the American companies coming out of the country to the rest of the world. This may be a little worrying for the UK, as the country may get swamped with American imports. However, I think there would still be room for a British industry, and I think there will be a lot more opportunities for the UK in this regard”.

The growth of cannabis in the UK

There are minimal barriers to importing medical cannabis into the UK currently. All imported products must meet EU GMP standards, which many American companies are already working to. Barnes says there are risks, however, that smaller companies in the UK may be taken over by bigger companies coming into the country if the UK’s legislation does not catch up with the current industry leaders.

“Importing medical cannabis products into the UK is fairly easy if you have an EU GMP product. However, there is a risk in this new space of big players taking over little players, and we are beginning to see this in the CBD industry in the UK.

“Like any new industry, in one or two years we will see fewer players, which is good in some ways as it brings economy of scale and might bring the price down. In cannabis I think there is room for craft cannabis in the UK, in the same way that we have a demand in this country for craft beer – there are a lot of subtleties that you don’t get from the big players that produce a limited range of oil, but some smaller players coming into the UK produce more interesting ranges. I would hate to see big players dominating the entire market.

“I think there is a parallel to the old beer industry where for a time we saw the beer industry in the UK dominated by half a dozen very big brewers, with very limited choice, whereas now we see a whole range of craft beers and subtleties that the public like – the same can be applied to cannabis.

“There is certainly a place for small, niche growers who can adapt to the market quite quickly.”

Establishing a medical cannabis market

Since 2018 medical cannabis has been available on the NHS yet accessing NHS medical cannabis prescriptions is still difficult. There are around 2,500 patients being prescribed cannabis in the UK however, all are private prescriptions, with only three prescriptions being made available on the NHS.

“The medical cannabis industry is a multibillion-pound industry, and in my view when the industry is properly established in the UK in a year or two, people will see it is a safe product and think about legalising it – as has been the pattern in many jurisdictions. Sadly, I do think that if the medical establishment remains so reluctant and slow to establish medical cannabis, then they could be bypassed, whereby we end up with a recreational industry which people go to in order to get their own medicine.

“Cannabis is here to stay – no doubt. I see the NHS beginning to prescribe over the next few years – so this will not only be great for the cannabis industry, but I also see a more vibrant cannabis sector with a great range of medical cannabis products. Biden’s election has pushed that optimism and I would love to see the British industry growing our own products. The only downside is going to be that it will be difficult to match the prices of products grown in Colombia, where you can grow for less than $1 a gram – in the UK there has to be greenhouse which adds to the cost. Even so, we can make sure it is better quality and that the supply chain is efficient.”

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  1. Only those of us who suffer constant pain can appreciate the introduction of Cannabis to alleviate or weaken the daily pain and quality of life for most sufferers……I suffer with severe side effects of traditional pain killing drugs, and prepared to sacrifice holidays , new clothes, and eating out to gain relief from the back pain I endure every day. Why are our NHS denying the elderly of living the last year’s of their lives in agony.??


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