In mid 2018, the United Kingdom made the huge decision to legalize medical cannabis. The move followed growing debate and pressure, after a slew of stories hit the headlines about children with epilepsy who were forced to travel abroad to receive medical marijuana treatment.
Media attention then reached fever pitch after officers at Heathrow Airport confiscated cannabis medication from the mother of Northern Ireland’s Billy Caldwell. Ultimately, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid approved a medical cannabis license for Billy. This led to the UK government having to admit that marijuana has therapeutic value. Javid ordered a review into medical cannabis, and a few weeks later, it was announced that specialist doctors would be able to prescribe marijuana-based treatment to patients.
But a year on from this breakthrough, just how much has changed in Britain regarding cannabis? We’ll seek to answer the following questions in this article:
- Are Britain’s medical marijuana laws working?
- Who is able to access medical cannabis in the UK?
- Are private clinics fulfilling patients’ medical cannabis requirements?
- What are new Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s views on cannabis?
- Will the UK legalize recreational cannabis soon?
A short history of cannabis in the UK
Cannabis and hemp has more than 1000 years of history in the UK. Hemp was a popular source of fibre in coastal regions, and was likely used to make fishing nets, ropes and more. Hemp continued to be cultivated for much of the second millennium. However, it first came to Western focus as a medicine in the 1840s, when it was imported from India.
Cannabis use was widespread among many British colonies during this period, including Jamaica and southern Africa. Cannabis was quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th century as a migraine medicine. There are also reports that Queen Victoria used a form of cannabis to relieve menstrual cramps. However, some historians have poured doubt on this.
When was cannabis made illegal in the UK? The Brits banned weed in 1928, slightly earlier than the Americans. This was to bring the UK in line with the 1925 International Opium Convention. The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 also listed cannabis from 1928 onwards. As in the US, marijuana became demonized, but enjoyed a comeback in the 1960s. The counterculture movements were perhaps not as fervent in Britain as the US. But cannabis arrests spiked by almost 2,000 percent to 4683 at the end of the 60s, from just 235 at the start of the decade.
Cannabis in the modern era
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 clarified illegal drugs just like America’s Controlled Substances Act of the same year. Cannabis has nearly always been categorized as a Class B drug, with authorities deeming it less harmful than cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and LSD. Between 2004 and 2009, under a Labour government, marijuana was briefly downgraded to Class C.
There have been some attempts to legalize marijuana in recent years. The Liberal Democrats, who were part of a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, campaigned to legalise weed in 2017. Public perception of cannabis in the UK has gradually improved. A 2019 YouGov survey found that 53 percent either “strongly support” or “tend to support” legalising the drug. The public’s improved view of cannabis can perhaps be attributed to positive media stories, and the proliferation of hemp-based CBD oil products. The Cannabis Trades Association UK reported that the number of British CBD users doubled from 125,000 in 2017 to 250,000 last year.
Are Britain’s medical marijuana laws working?
Medical cannabis legalization was supposed to mark a new progressive dawn for the plant in the UK. Britain has always prided itself as being at the forefront of healthcare, with the National Health Service (NHS) an example of how a socialized healthcare system can work. However, the UK has undoubtedly been behind the curve on medical cannabis, having only legalized it in 2018. And patients have been critical about how the current medical program makes it difficult if not impossible to access medicinal cannabis oil on prescription.
Only specialized doctors are able to prescribe cannabis, and the drug can only be imported into Britain after the prescription has been made.This strict regulatory framework has, according to a recent Guardian report, likely limited prescription cannabis to fewer than 100 UK patients. Doctors apparently have concerns about prescribing cannabis products due to the absence of clinical evidence.
This is understandable in a way, but when patients are experiencing severe pain or hundreds of seizures per week, their quality of life is so adversely affected that, on balance, it makes sense to trial medical marijuana. Doctors have full control over what type of products they prescribe. If there are long-term concerns about the side effects of psychoactive THC, simply limit THC levels and supplement prescriptions with non-intoxicating and anti-psychoactive CBD.
Interestingly, Sativex, an oral cannabis spray from GW Pharmaceuticals, has been licensed in the UK for several years. The drug has a mix of THC and CBD, and is prescribed for multiple sclerosis. This shows that the UK can get medical cannabis to patients when it wants to. However, Sativex is expensive and not considered a viable medical marijuana treatment for the wider population.
Carly Barton’s story
Carly Barton has suffered from fibromyalgia since the age of 24. Doctors have tried treating the condition with increasingly strong opioids, including fentanyl patches. Barton was sceptical of trying cannabis for pain relief, having heard about the mental health risks. But after eventually smoking a joint, her pain subsided for the first time in years. Since then, Carly has steadily eased herself off opioids, and onto cannabis. Rather than smoking weed, she opts for a healthier option – vaping it.
Barton hoped things would get better with medical cannabis legalization. But she was forced to go private after being unable to get an NHS prescription. However, the prices were crazy, at £1,400 ($1,700) a month. Can cannabis be prescribed in the UK? Yes, but it seems only for the wealthy.
With this unaffordable, and street dealers rarely having the correct strains, Carly has taken to growing her own. The reality is that the only way she can get legal cannabis in the UK is to break the law. Her situation is truly bizarre. After starting to home grow, Barton went to the police explaining exactly what she was doing. They are yet to stop her. But she rightly says that she “shouldn’t have to look over her shoulder” to access what is meant to be a legal medicine.
Private clinics are certainly not meeting the needs of medical marijuana patients, to answer one of the original questions. But it can be argued that this shouldn’t be their role, since, unlike many other countries, the UK has a comprehensive socialized healthcare system.
What are Boris Johnson’s views on cannabis?
There is a lot of political uncertainty in the UK right now. Britain’s impending departure from the European Union has brought down two Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May. Now, Boris Johnson, a leading architect of the Brexit vote, is residing in 10 Downing Street.
As with the previous two PMs, Johnson is a Conservative. The party has never campaigned for legal recreational marijuana. As a socially conservative party, they would traditionally be less likely to support this than the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps Labour also. Johnson is unpredictable, though, and something of a maverick. This may make him less confined to ideology than previous Tory leaders. Johnson has even referred to cannabis as “jolly nice” in a GQ interview back in 2007, having had multiple experiences with the drug.
On a more serious note, two senior aides in Johnson’s new government are in favor of legal cannabis: Blair Gibbs and Danny Kruger. But these comments are not indicative of policy, according to a government spokesman. Johnson is hardly the first politician whose personal habits are in contrast to his political stances.
Legal cannabis: a vote-winner?
Legal marijuana could be a vote-winning policy according to polling. Should Boris prove to be a populist leader, going legal may be the way forward. It could also attract younger voters who the Tories have been struggling to win over. Furthermore, if all other parties move toward legalizing cannabis, it may be harder for the Tories to oppose it than support it. Much will also depend on whether Johnson is able to secure his leadership. If he were to win a future selection and secure a sizeable majority, it would become easier for the Tories to push their political ambitions through Parliament.
How other countries get on with legal marijuana will also be of interest to British lawmakers. Recently, a cross-party team of MPs went to Canada, which became the second country to legalize recreational pot in 2018. David Lammy (Labour), Sir Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat), and Jonathan Djanogly (Conservative) are now expecting cannabis to become fully legal “within five to 10 years.” At present, Labour, the official opposition in the UK, are still against full legalization.
Cannabis research is on the rise
Another plus for cannabis advocates is the increasing cannabis research in the UK. King’s College London has come out with a series of important studies. These have focussed on both the risks of high-THC strains and the potential upsides of medical cannabis. For instance, a 2018 study showed how CBD could “reset brain function” in people with psychosis. Peer-reviewed JAMA Psychiatry published the study.
Moreover, the world’s biggest medicinal cannabis farm just happens to be in the UK. The cannabis factory reportedly grows weed with an annual street value of £80m ($100m). This is all part of a GW Pharmaceuticals operation, which makes Sativex and Epidiolex, a CBD drug for epilepsy approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018. It suggests there could be plenty of cannabis jobs in the UK in the near future.
CBD in the United Kingdom
CBD products have enjoyed a similar rise in the UK as they have in the US. Hemp-based products are popping up in health stores and can be purchased online, along with cannabis seeds. These CBD products face the same kind of restrictions – products can have no more than 0.2 percent THC. Brands must market CBD as a supplement. Those wishing to sell CBD as a medicine need to obtain a licence from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Britain’s version of the FDA.
But the ability for anyone to buy CBD oils, e-liquids, wax concentrates, and edibles such as chocolate, candy and brownies has brought CBD to the masses. Brits are giving CBD a try and liking what they get from it. This bodes well for CBD’s future across the pond, and that of marijuana in general.
The UK has made a crucial step in legalizing medical cannabis. But so far, the law is flattering to deceive. Now, more patients need access to cannabis medicine on the NHS, at no additional cost. Only then will the law have been a success.