Is 2021 the year the country finally embraces the cannabis sector? Cannabis Health reporter Joe Roberts speaks to some of the UK’s leading cannabis experts to hear their thoughts and predictions for the year ahead.
2020 was a year of uncertainty, but also opportunity for the cannabis sector.
Global demand for cannabis has surged and as mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression become increasingly prevalent during the pandemic, many are realising the potential for cannabis-based products to help tackle these issues.
Despite the discovery and clinical approval of Pfizer and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, 2021 remains uncertain for the cannabis sector.
“It’s difficult to predict what 2021 will hold for medical cannabis because of the coronavirus pandemic,” medical cannabis campaigner, Hannah Deacon, told Cannabis Health.
“At the moment, it does feel a little bit hostile. The government seems to not be focusing on anything domestically, other than Coronavirus. So that means that the brakes have been put on when it comes to the issuing of licenses to farmers who wish to grow, and that’s really worrying.
“I just hope that the 2021 brings it into focus for them; that they really need to embrace the cannabis sector.”
Deacon’s son, Alfie Dingley was the first patient in the UK to receive a permanent licence for medical cannabis and is one of only three children in the country to receive the treatment through the NHS.
Restrictive clinical guidelines and high costs are two of the main barriers that prevent individuals and families from accessing medical cannabis. For the vast majority, an NHS prescription is out of the question. For these people, the only option is private medical care or turning to the black market.
Deacon spoke about a family who last month sent her a copy of a receipt for a £2,400 bill for cannabis-based medication for their child.
Although efforts are being made to bring these prices down with affordable payment plans being rolled out by the likes of Sapphire Medical Clinic and Project Twenty21, monthly costs are still beyond most patients’ budgets.
“These families wouldn’t be trying to find this money every month if it wasn’t helping their children. Something needs to be done urgently to improve access on the NHS,” said Deacon.
“It’s just unacceptable to place that financial burden on a family who is already struggling for services because they have a child with a disability. Many of these services have been cut due to austerity in the last 10 years, and due to COVID, they are not getting the respite and the support that they need.
“They also have to fight to keep their children safe and keep them out of hospital.”
At present, only doctors on the specialist register of the General Medical Council (GMC), also known as consultants, are permitted to prescribe cannabis-based medical products.
Professor Mike Barnes, chair of the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society (MCCS), says he would like to see GPs prescribing by the end of 2021, arguing that many of the conditions that can be treated by cannabis are within the remit of GPs, such as anxiety, sleep issues, appetite and mild to severe moderate pain.
Deacon who co-founded MCCS with Prof Barnes, agrees that prescribing cannabis is the role of a GP and argues that consultants don’t have the time to write prescriptions and regularly follow up with patients.
“Hopefully GPs will be given the right to prescribe this year, or at least as soon as possible,” she said.
“If that happens, I think it will open up access very quickly because I know there are a lot of GPs who are very supportive of access to medical cannabis.
“They have seen the change in people who are using it illicitly, but this is dangerous. We shouldn’t be criminalising sick people. It’s disgraceful.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Prof Barnes is optimistic for the coming year and predicts that the NHS will be prescribing cannabis-based medicines by the end of 2021.
Peter Reynolds, President of CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform, is less hopeful.
“I think the senior clinicians and bureaucrats at NHS and NICE will continue to do all they can to block access,” he said.
“They will continue to insist that [clinical trials] are the only form of evidence that they will accept, and they will continue to ignore and reject all evidence from overseas.”
According to Prof Barnes the number of published research papers has approximately doubled since 2016 and he predicts that in 2021 there will be a similar number of papers published, if not more.
“When I wrote the 2016 report for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy, there were 20,000 references for the clinical use of cannabis; there’s now 40,000,” Barnes said.
“That’s not surprising. In fifty countries cannabis is now legal in various shapes and sizes so you can more readily do that research now.
“Every week there’s papers coming out about cannabis – the dosage and the format to take it and indications for it. It’s here to stay.”
Despite his lack of faith in the country’s political leaders, Reynolds is confident that 2021 will be the year that cannabis is finally decriminalised.
“Our political leaders will be too scared of the tabloid media to do anything,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the criminal trade will continue to drive county lines, knife crime, prostitution, modern slavery, all off the back of profits from the cannabis trade but Boris Johnson will refuse to understand this or follow the evidence that legal regulation is the solution.”
Hannah Deacon echoes Reynolds’ concerns with the government’s approach to medical cannabis, arguing that its resistance to cannabis legalisation stems from its fear of recreational use.
“I’ve met Matt Hancock a few times,” Deacon said. “I met him in February, and he said to me that he’ll leave no stone unturned to sort out access for children, but I’m afraid he hasn’t.
“Although he can’t intervene with NICE, he can show leadership on it, but unfortunately, I don’t think he has demonstrated leadership.”
For Deacon, 2021 is an opportunity for the UK to establish itself as a global leader in the cannabis sector, but only if the UK government “allows it to happen”.
“It’s really, really important that we create a robust UK sector starting now,” she said.
“We have expertise in this country that other countries don’t have.
“We’re already seeing the emergence of the infrastructure for the sector, but there’s a lot of work still to be done on ensuring that we have good supply for people.
“There’s also a lot of potential to create jobs and the potential to create tax. I think that’s what the government should really be focusing on in the new year coming because we’re going to need it. We’re going to need to rebuild our economy.”
Last year, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that all businesses selling CBD products on the UK market must apply for authorisation of each of their products by 31 March 2021.
Stephen Oliver, co-founder of the London-based consultancy dedicated to the cannabinoid sector, Canna Consultants, anticipates that enforcement of this will commence from April 2021 onwards with the intent to ‘rid’ the market of products which have not achieved Novel Food Validation by the FSA.
Oliver expects that this will lead to a reduction in the range of products available to consumers, but believes it will also offer greater protection for those who buy and consume CBD products.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has resumed its review of CBD Novel Food applications since ruling that CBD cannot be deemed a narcotic.
Up until the Kanavape court case closed on the 19th November 2020, CBD products extracted from hemp flower had been classed as a narcotic drug. Now, free movement of CBD products between EU member states can no longer be prevented on these grounds.
Oliver questions how long the assessment of Novel Food applications will take and speculates that the European market may begin to fall behind.
“It is likely that Europe will continue to be off limits for companies unwilling to breach the Novel Food laws for at least the next two years,” Oliver said.
“This will cause the market in Member States to lag further and further behind the UK and the rest of the world.
“By the time that CBD is permitted to lawfully sit on European shelves as a ‘new’ offering, it will have been normalised in all of Europe’s significant competitor jurisdictions.”
Stephen Murphy, co-founder and managing director of Prohibition Partners also believes the UK cannabis industry has an opportunity to make a “head start” against its European competitors.
He added: “Despite the considerable uncertainties which will arise from the new trade relations with Europe, the UK also has an opportunity to develop its own line on the regulation of cannabis and CBD.
“This advantage gives the UK the time to develop a strong cannabinoid market with potential world-leading companies.”
New research refutes ‘gateway drug’ fears over cannabis legalisation
Young adults consumed less alcohol, cigarettes and other substances following cannabis legalisation in Washington State.
Young adults consume less alcohol, cigarettes and other substances following cannabis legalisation, according to a new study.
A paper published earlier this month by researchers at the University of Washington, found that young people consumed less alcohol, nicotine, and non-prescribed pain medication, after cannabis was legalised for adult-use.
Researchers assessed trends in alcohol, nicotine, and non-prescribed pain reliever use among a cohort of over 12,500 young adults (ages 18 to 25) in Washington State following legalisation in 2012.
Contrary to concerns about the detrimental effects on wider society, according to the study, “the implementation of legalised non-medical cannabis coincided with decreases in alcohol and cigarette use and pain reliever misuse.”
The findings show that prevalence of alcohol use, heavy episodic drinking and cigarette use in the past month, as well as prevalence of past-year pain reliever misuse decreased.
While the prevalence of substance use other than cannabis was “higher among occasional and frequent cannabis users compared to cannabis non-users”, associations between cannabis and pain reliever misuse and heavy episodic drinking “weakened over time”.
However the team did find that the prevalence of past-month e-cigarette use had increased post-legalisation.
They concluded: “Our findings add to evidence that the legalisation of non-medical cannabis has not led to dramatic increases in the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and non-prescribed opioids.
“The findings indicate that the most critical public health concerns surrounding cannabis legalisation and the evolution of legalised cannabis markets may be specific to cannabis use and related consequences.”
Commenting on the study’s findings, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “Real-world data from legalisation states disputes longstanding claims that cannabis is some sort of ‘gateway’ substance. In fact, in many instances, cannabis regulation is associated with the decreased use of other substances, including many prescription medications.”
Cannabis legalisation in the UK
Cannabis legalisation is a hot topic in the UK at the moment, following London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s fact-finding trip to LA last week. He subsequently announced that he would be launching a review panel to explore the possibility of decriminalisation in the UK.
This has sparked debate among politicians, media personalities and the general public alike.
While Home Secretary Priti Patel shared her thoughts that cannabis can “ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives”, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse described it as an “entry level drug”.
And even Labour refused to get behind Khan, saying the party “does not support changing the law on drugs.”
But recent polling suggests the politicians may be out of touch with the public. YouGov polls show that more than half of Londoners support the mayor’s proposals.
Meanwhile a poll last year revealed that 52 per cent of the population either ‘strongly supported’ or ‘tended to support’ legalisation.
Medical cannabis in the mainstream – the top headlines this week
Get up to date on the week’s headlines.
This week the media has been dominated with responses to Sadiq Khan’s controversial fact-finding mission to LA and plans for cannabis decriminalisation.
Although stories of police raids and cannabis farm busts continue to make up the majority of major cannabis headlines, the mainstream media is increasingly covering new developments in the cannabis space, from policy to patient stories.
Over the past few days, MPs have been responding to Sadiq Khan’s controversial trip to LA cultivators and dispensaries, while the Daily Express reported on a new study about a cannabis-based product aiming to treat chronic pain. Here are the week’s five top cannabis headlines not to miss.
New study into cannabis for chronic pain
Daily Express spoke to the managing director of LVL Health, Tony Samios, about the company’s feasibility study which explores the effects of a cannabis-based product for chronic pain. The study will use cannabis flower in pre-filled cartridges and aims to build the data and evidence needed to improve patient access on the NHS.
Samios told the Express that the study is set to be a “game-changer in bridging the gap between evidence and making change using a rigorous scientific approach” providing “reliable data that is essentially missing”.
Sadiq Khan’s time would be “better spent focusing on knife and drug crime”, says Patel
Priti Patel made her thoughts on Sadiq Khan’s plan to consider cannabis legalisation in London clear in a Twitter post last week.
“Sadiq Khan’s time would be better spent focusing on knife and drug crime in London. The Mayor has no powers to legalise drugs. They ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives,” Patel said in the Tweet.
Her rebuke comes after Sadiq Khan’s recent trip to the US which included a fact-finding mission to LA to understand more about an international evidence-based approach to reducing drug-related harm in the capital. The London mayor also announced the launch of a new London Drugs Commission.
Policing Minister Kit Malthouse expressed a similar view to Patel. Last week he told The Sun: “I find it baffling that just last week, the Mayor of London thought it appropriate to stage a photoshoot in a cannabis farm in LA, to reiterate his support for the legalisation of this entry level drug. I profoundly wish he would focus on knife crime and violence taking place in the capital instead.”
Khan initially made his plans clear last year prior to his re-election, saying that he would consider decriminalising cannabis in the capital if he were to be voted in as mayor for a second term.
The Labour party’s response to Khan’s cannabis plan
The party’s stance was made clear in a statement that stated: “Labour does not support changing the law on drugs. Drugs policy is not devolved to mayors and under Labour would continue to be set by national Government.”
HuffPost UK reported that a number of shadow cabinet members were “furious” at Khan’s comments, including Yvette Cooper. “Yvette is furious about it,” a Labour source told HuffPost UK. “People are just rolling their eyes because it definitely is not the official party line.”
Although it goes against his party’s official stance, Khan’s plan reflects data gathered by YouGov which has found that the majority of UK citizens are in support of cannabis legalisation.
Another source told the online outlet: “Sadiq has positioned himself as a progressive mayor on the side of the public prepared to take on the tough questions to genuinely tackle crime rather than pointless posturing that isn’t even popular anyway.”
Meanwhile, iNews reported that Labour MPs “let rip” in a private WhatsApp group. “This is going to go down like a bucket of cold sick in my bit of the suburbs just now… Crime up, police numbers still way below where people think they should be, so Labour is going to have a chat about drugs… Inspired,” said Gareth Thomas, the Shadow International Trade minister.
Not all Labour MPs have responded negatively, however. The Daily Mail reported on Shadow Cabinet minister Ed Miliband’s response to Khan’s plans. Although he highlighted that Khan did not reflect the Party’s position, he said Labour “welcome[s] Sadiq looking at these issues because this debate should carry on”.
“Cannabis ruins lives and legalising it won’t help”
In response to Sadiq Khan’s US visit, journalist and campaigner Louise Perry offered her opinion in an article for the London Evening Standard. While she said she would be “happy” to see possession of small amounts of cannabis made legal, but added that legalising the cannabis industry is “another matter entirely”.
The article is unlikely to sit well with cannabis campaigners and advocates thanks to its comparison between cannabis and tobacco, a focus on the dangers of psychosis and the lack of attention given to studies showing the positive effects of cannabis on health and wellbeing.
“Industries employ lobbyists to disguise the harmful effects of the products they sell,” Perry writes. “This has happened many times before.
“By the early 50s, the scientific evidence was clear: tobacco was killing people. And yet it would be 20 years until warning signs appeared on the side of cigarette packets sold in the UK. This tardiness was the result of lobbying by the tobacco industry, which opposed health authorities every step of the way.”
Patient faces dispute with council over housing
A man living in Norwich who holds a private cannabis prescription says he is facing difficulties finding a new place to live after being told by the city council to disclose his indoor cannabis use to landlords.
As reported by Norwich Evening News, Danny Wilson is prescribed legal cannabis by TMCC Medical Clinic for chronic pain, ADHD and anxiety. Wilson – who is currently on universal credit and personal independence payments due to his condition – pays between £700 and £1,000 per month for his medication.
Mr Wilson said: “I’ve repeatedly told them forcing me to go around approaching landlords and agents this way is causing me trauma but they ignored me.”
Despite never having being in prison, the city council offered him a place at House of Genesis, a rehoming initiative for ex-offenders.
Medical cannabis in the mainstream – the UK’s top stories
All your cannabis news in one place
There has been a mix of cannabis-related stories in the media over the past week. In case you missed them, we’ve compiled some of the headlines.
This week, news outlets such as The Guardian and The Telegraph have reported on UK medical cannabis labs, cannabis use for fibromyalgia and a rise in drug-driving cases amongst medical consumers.
Inside one of the UK’s first medical cannabis labs
The Guardian’s Julia Kollewe visited a growing lab owned by Celadon Pharmaceuticals, one of the first cultivation sites to be granted a home office licence to grow high-THC medical cannabis in the UK. The site is based in the West Midlands and grows cannabis predominantly for chronic pain. It is one of the only cannabis cultivators in the country to use an indoor lab rather than greenhouses.
According to The Guardian, Celadon is planning to ramp up production, aiming to grow 10 to 15 tonnes a year and supply up to 50,000 patients. At full capacity, the lab could generate £90m in annual revenues.
Founder James Short said: “I speak to patients on a regular basis who can’t work and are in terrible pain each day, that don’t want to be on opioids. Some are having to pay hundreds of pounds each month for medicinal cannabis. It really does work.”
“Massive injustice” – medical cannabis patients facing driving offences
In a less positive story, The Telegraph reported that medicinal cannabis patients are increasingly being prosecuted for drug driving with arrests reportedly doubling in the last four years.
Those taking cannabis may face a positive result in police roadside testing up to 72 hours after taking the drug. Although studies have shown driving capabilities are not impaired after this length of time, patients still face prosecution.
Since 2016, arrests linked with drug driving have increased by 140 per cent, according to police figures obtained by The Telegraph.
But while medical cannabis patients are at risk of arrest, those taking opiate-based prescription drugs are permitted to drive even if they are over the lawful limit, provided they follow their doctor’s advice.
The Telegraph spoke to one patient, David Dancy, who was being prosecuted for drug driving despite the fact he had taken his prescription 12 hours prior to getting in his car. The 33-year-old said the prosecution is “a massive injustice”.
Fibromyalgia and arthritis patient on how cannabis changed her life
Andrea Wright, a medical cannabis patient from Bristol, spoke to The Guardian about her ongoing battle with psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia. The 39-year-old was diagnosed in 2016, suffering from constant pain and severe lack of sleep. She eventually was forced to leave her job due to her ill health.
“I had to stop work because the pain was too much. It’s been very depressing; I really enjoyed my job. I tried so many different therapies and managed to get my arthritis under control but for fibromyalgia, there isn’t anything, no magical pill,” Wright told The Guardian.
After trying medical cannabis as part of a study run by LVL Health, she found she was able to get her first “proper night’s sleep” since 2012. She is now back at work and now aiming to reduce her reliance on opioid painkillers.
300 campaigners march through streets of Cardiff
Campaigners calling for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK marched through Cardiff city centre this weekend, WalesOnline reported on Saturday (7 May). This was the first protest to take place in Wales since before the pandemic.
The march was organised by Terry Wakefield, who has been involved in cannabis campaigning since 1999. She told WalesOnline that the stigma surrounding cannabis was pushing the trade further underground.
“Cannabis is my medicine. I suffer complex PTSD and this march might sometimes be the only time I’m outside,” she said. “If I was in a position where I could go to my GP and ask for a prescription I would do.
“If we are able to consume cannabis in the UK then we should have a right to grow our own. The more this stays illegal the more it will be pushed underground and the more gangs and slaves in Britain.”
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