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2021: The year the UK finally embraces cannabis?

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With cannabis reform happening around the world, will 2021 be the year the UK embraces the sector?
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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.”

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