How Far is the UK from Legalising Marijuana?

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The United Kingdom is estimated to have more than 3.6 million regular cannabis users as well as a marijuana black market that is worth around £4.7 billion. Additionally, the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis estimates that the cannabidiol (CBD) market in the United Kingdom, which is currently worth around £300 million per year, will be worth almost £1 billion per year by 2025. But that is not all, the United Kingdom is actually the biggest CBD market in Europe. Medicinal marijuana is also legal in the UK and, according to some estimates, the number of potential medical marijuana users could be as high as three million.

Related: How Germany’s Hemp Association Fights Cannabis Criminalisation

If you combine all of this with the fact that the European cannabis landscape is predicted to be worth about £106 billion by 2028, there is an obvious question that arises: How far is the United Kingdom from legalising marijuana?


Why the United Kingdom could legalise marijuana soon

Cannabis has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1928 and has been classified as a ‘Class B’ drug ever since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed. Class B drugs are illegal to possess, distribute and use. From 2004 to 2009, marijuana was briefly rescheduled and classified as a ‘Class C’ drug.

However, while it is still very much illegal to consume, possess, produce or sell recreational marijuana, the situation is not as simple as that. It is true that if you get caught with cannabis that has more than 0.2% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive compound that is responsible for the high that is associated with marijuana, the current maximum sentence for possession is still five years imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.

Related: The Legal Situation of Cannabis in the UK

For producing or supplying cannabis you can even face a maximum of 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. That being said, the police can instead choose to issue a warning or an on-the-spot fine of £90 if you’re found with cannabis.

However, THC is not the only cannabinoid that has many beneficial effects. Another cannabinoid that has become very popular in the past few years is CBD. The CBD market in the United Kingdom is booming and medicinal marijuana has also been legalized for nearly a year.

Strictly speaking, it also is not the cannabis plant in itself that is illegal, it is the presence of THC or one of the other banned cannabinoids that can be found in the plant that make it illegal. You can even grow cannabis plants in the UK, you just need a licence from the Home Office — bear in mind that such a licence is rather hard to get.

So, without further ado, let’s shine a light on why the United Kingdom could legalise marijuana soon.


Medical marijuana is already legal in the United Kingdom

In 2010, Sativex was approved as a drug for the treatment of multiple sclerosis in the UK. Now, more than nine years later, on the 19th of September 2019, the company GW Pharmaceuticals released a new product that is called Epidyolex. It has been authorised by the European Medicines Agency and Epidyolex is available in the EU as well as in the United Kingdom.

Further, Sajid Javid, the then home secretary and now Chancellor of the Exchequer, authorised the use of medicinal marijuana products on the 1st of November 2018. Since then, doctors in the United Kingdom who are on the General Medical Council’s specialist register are allowed to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use. It is estimated that the potential number of medical cannabis users could be as high as 3 million.

Now, exactly two years after medical cannabis was legalised in the UK, from the 1st of November 2020, a new cannabis exemption card, called Cancard, will be available. This card will help protect medical marijuana patients in the United Kingdom from legal prosecution and arrests.

Cancard was conceived by Carly Barton, who is one of the UK’s most prominent advocates for medicinal cannabis law reform, and more than 1 million people in the United Kingdom will potentially be eligible for Cancard through their GPs.

However, cannabis-based drugs are still not covered by the National Health Service (NHS), which often makes it expensive for patients to self-fund.


The CBD market in the United Kingdom is booming

CBD legislation can also be dated back to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The terms of this act state that pure CBD is legal. In fact, the terms actually say that cannabis with up to 0.2% of THC is in accordance with the law. However, growing cannabis requires a licence and licences are extremely difficult to obtain, even for the variant of Cannabis sativa that is commonly known as hemp and has little to no THC content.

It is estimated that there are over 1.3 million CBD users in the UK and the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis estimates that the CBD market in the United Kingdom will be worth almost £1 billion per year by 2025. Right now, it is worth around £300M per year, which still makes the United Kingdom the biggest CBD market in Europe. And UK cannabis companies like CBDax and Kingdom of Green are making use of this hype and providing CBD products to users in the United Kingdom.

All of the CBD products that are on the UK CBD market are being made from industrial hemp, which is completely legal to possess and cultivate as long as you have a licence. However, these licences are usually only valid for a year and just allow for the industrial use of the fibre and seeds. You can also get a 3-year licence that has special requirements.


Why the UK won’t legalise marijuana in the near future

So, even though the legal and illegal cannabis markets are booming in the UK, why would cannabis not be legalised in the near future?


The truth about the medical marijuana program in the United Kingdom

Well, while it is true that Sajid Javid authorised doctors who are on the General Medical Council’s specialist register to prescribe medicinal marijuana products, and while, on the 31st of October, 2018, the NHS provided new guidance for the medicinal use of cannabis-based products in the United Kingdom, the NHS Business Services Authority reported that there have been fewer than 10 NHS prescriptions for cannabis-based products for medicinal use since then.

Cam Battley, the chief corporate officer of the Canada-based company Aurora Cannabis, which is the world’s largest medicinal cannabis company, said that the UK was failing patients.

‘What was the point of creating a medical cannabis system if patients can’t access it?’ Battley asked when he was speaking at the annual Cannabis Europa conference in London in June of 2019.

And Battley was right. With only specialists being able to prescribe medical marijuana and products like Sativex receiving a do not do recommendation from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence because of it not being cost-effective, the UK really is failing patients who might benefit from medicinal marijuana.

Even though the UK is the world’s largest supplier of legal cannabis and produces 95 million tons of marijuana a year, it somehow manages to face shortages of the drug and is reliant on imports from Holland and Canada.

Medical marijuana patients in the UK are victims of oppressing legislation

These shortages, combined with the lack of NHS prescriptions have not only led to hundreds of people paying up to £1,000 a month for private prescriptions of medical cannabis but they have also put a lot of patients in the unfortunate position of needing marijuana but not being able to get it legally, even though medical marijuana is technically not prohibited.

For example, according to Epilepsy Society, one out of every 200 children born in the UK is diagnosed with epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes fits or seizures in which erratic bursts of electrical activity impact the brain.

As cultivation and storage of cannabis are not permitted in the UK, each prescription is ordered on a name-patient basis from other countries, meaning that patients sometimes have to wait months at a time for their prescription. In the case of people that need cannabis to treat their epilepsy, this wait time can be fatal.

Despite health secretary Matt Hancock’s assurances that medicinal marijuana would be available on the NHS within several months after it was legalised, there has not been a single reported prescription for full-extract cannabis oil on the NHS since its legalisation. This is because doctors have effectively been blocked from prescribing it due to a lack of clinical evidence.

Doctors in the UK are currently still tied to interim guidelines that were authored by the Royal College of Physicians and the British Paediatric Neurology Association in 2018. These guidelines emphasise the lack of randomised controlled trials for medicinal marijuana– something that was impossible while the drug was prohibited.


Legislation surrounding the CBD market in the United Kingdom is unclear

Even though the CBD market had a major boom in the UK during the past years, the legality of certain CBD products is still unclear, even with famous faces documenting their experiences with CBD and epilepsy.

Now more than ever, as it appears that some CBD sellers had a confrontation with the law for selling CBD hemp flowers, which, without the correct licences, could be seen as them being in possession of Class B drugs.

These licences only allow you to grow cannabis with a low THC content for industrial purposes, additionally, they only allow you to use the non-controlled parts of the plant. In other words, the licences only allow the use of the seeds and the stalk/fibre, not the usage of the flowers.

This means that since you can’t grow cannabis without a licence, and since you can’t use the flowers of the plant even if you have a licence, CBD marijuana flowers are, against popular belief, illegal in the UK.

Further, online shops such as Kingdom of Green have decided to stop selling CBD hemp flowers because of the vague legislation.

The possibilities of prescribing medical CBD were discussed in March of 2019, however, it appears that there is still a lot to confirm when it comes to accessing CBD via the NHS. Having clearer guidelines on the production and sale of CBD products and, in particular, hemp flowers, within the UK, and the EU, for that matter, would help to ensure that the CBD market will continue to thrive and prosper.

In January of 2019, the European Union’s Novel Food regime decided to classify all extracted cannabinoids as ‘novel’. This could have serious implications and consequences for the CBD industry in the UK. However, how much will presumably depend on what form of Brexit happens.


Where Britain’s most important political parties stand on cannabis

In 2019, the three MPs Jonathan Djanogly (Conservative Party), David Lammy (Labour Party) and Sir Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrats) returned from a research trip to Canada and said that the UK will probably completely legalise cannabis use within five to ten years. And, in fact, the Liberal Democrats are already officially backing the legalisation of cannabis in the United Kingdom, with members of other parties also starting to change their minds.


Conservative and Unionist Party

Position: centre-right

Status: ruling

Election results: 42.4% (2017)

The Conservative Party does not have a clear stance on cannabis. The party leader Boris Johnson, for example, is in favour of medical marijuana legalisation, while many of his party members are strictly against any kind of legal cannabis.


Labour Party

Position: centre-left

Status: opposition

Election results: 40% (2017)

The Labour Party is against legalising marijuana in the United Kingdom. However, MPs like David Lammy show that not everyone who is part of the Labour Party is against cannabis legalisation.


Liberal Democrats

Position: centre to centre-left

Status: opposition

Election results: 7.4% (2017)

The Liberal Democrats are already officially in favour of legalising cannabis in the United Kingdom.


Source for election results: BBC


When can we realistically expect cannabis legalisation in the United Kingdom?

While the main objection to marijuana legalisation continues to be the alleged risks to mental health, the recent trend seems to be in favour of cannabis legalisation and regulation. The Liberal Democrats are already in favour of legalisation and, while other parties, like the Labour Party, are still officially against cannabis legalisation, some politicians, like David Lammy from the Labour Party, are changing their stance on the matter.

‘I want the market legalised, regulated and taken away from crime gangs’, Tottenham MP David Lammy told BBC after returning from visiting Toronto. ‘I want to see the strength of the stuff reduced, labelled and properly organised in this country’, Lammy went on. This change of heart might be an indicator of things to come, considering that David Lammy’s party is against marijuana legalisation.

The prospering CBD market in the UK, the thriving legal marijuana markets in some U.S. states as well as countries such as Canada, Uruguay and the booming medical marijuana markets in countries such as Germany should, hopefully, also give legislators a good idea of what the United Kingdom would be missing out on. The recent past shows that there is a lot of money to tax money to be made from cannabis.

And matters seem to be moving in the right direction. In September 2020, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) allowed medical marijuana companies to be listed on the London Stock Exchange. However, for the time being, companies that sell recreational cannabis will still be blocked because of the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Related: How Far is Germany from Legalising Marijuana?

Financial Times expects the size of the cannabis market in the United Kingdom to reach £16.5 billion by the next decade. Further, on the 25th of June, 2019, Tilray announced its import of a bulk supply of medical cannabis oil into the UK. Tilray already secured regulatory approval for six cannabis-based products in the United Kingdom.

Additionally, on the 21st of January, 2019, Canopy Growth announced its entry into the UK market for cannabis-based medicinal products. It did so via a new company, Spectrum Biomedical UK. On the 9th of August, 2019, the company strengthened its position in the United Kingdom medicinal cannabis market even more by acquiring the medical researcher Beckley Canopy Therapeutics.

Further, the Brexit chaos that is currently happening, and will most likely continue to happen, will probably have an impact on the legislation surrounding cannabis as well, seeing as a new election might happen earlier than expected.


How Brexit might affect the United Kingdom cannabis legislation

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was calling for an election to be held on the 12th of December, 2019, and saying that the MPs are holding the country ‘hostage’ by refusing a general election. However, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party were actually pushing for the election to be held on the 9th of December with a bill that amends the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The Labour Party, on the other hand, was still acting indecisive.

The Liberal Democrats said that this bill would remove the threat of any no-deal Brexit in the immediate future. The plan that the Liberal Democrats were following also only required them to get a simple majority instead of a two-thirds majority. This, in turn, prevented the Labour Party from just vetoing the process.

Since the Liberal Democrats are already in support of marijuana legalisation, Brexit might just somehow end up being good for the UK cannabis market. Still, with 35 SNP MPs and 19 Lib Dem MPs in the Commons, the success of this bill relied on cross-party support as well as on the EU agreeing to extend the deadline at least to the 31st of January, 2020.

In October 2019, the ambassadors from the 27 EU member countries were meeting in Brussels to consider a draft of a decision to extend the United Kingdom’s leaving date to the 31st of January, 2020.

Now that 2020 is nearly over and Brexit is in full motion, the future will tell how all of this affects cannabis in the UK. So far, with the FCA having allowed medical cannabis companies to be listed on the London Stock Exchange in September of this year, it seems like things are going in the right direction.

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