Fixing The Foundations of UK Medical Cannabis

Paul North reflects on the progress of UK medical cannabis since 2018, and proposes solutions for its future...

by Paul North

Early 2018 was a period of my life which I will never forget. Frantically charging around Westminster and Soho, working from my phone in the most disparate of settings – the jolting, hot and packed Central line to the calm, spacious and elegant rooms of St James Court Hotel.

It felt like we were on the verge of something truly momentous – the most conservative Prime Minister legalising cannabis under insurmountable pressure from the public. 

Then it happened. The law changed. Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK, the news cycle moved on and we sat back with anticipation, excitement and apprehension.

It took a matter of weeks for the industry to emerge and descend on our office – offers of collaboration, requests for insights and information. The UK became a beacon in Europe for cannabis industry investment and forces aligned to capitalise on this golden opportunity.

The team in 2018 working hard in a café across from Chelsea and Westminster Hospital as Sajid Javid announces in the House of Commons that medical cannabis will be made legal in the UK . 

Nearly five years later as I make a far less frantic trip into central London such memories feel not only from a lifetime ago – but from a different reality. That excitement and anticipation for what the UK industry could be has not materialised – we are left with companies competing but not quite profiting, patients prescribed but nowhere near the numbers in other jurisdictions. 

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on why we are in this situation and can’t help but conclude the whole industry needs to take a moment to consider the foundations upon which it stands. 

The numerous campaigns and interventions of 2018 epitomised the way in which the government now interacts with the media and the public. The government takes swift action if it feels the public are in revolt – not to do what is best for the public but to quell the storm and ensure it maintains a favourable position. 

In 2018 the government did just that – they passed laws to turn the heat off a whistling kettle. It was not the product of years of engagement with key stakeholders and experts. It was a knee jerk reaction to sudden pressure. 

While this is something to celebrate and work I am proud of – since 2018 we have not stopped to consider what is missing.

Large portions of the public have absolutely no idea medical cannabis is legal and remain deeply confused. Clinicians whom we need to support medical cannabis are exceptionally uncomfortable with it as a prescribed drug – they are not used to such swift and assertive laws changing their medical landscape without consultation. 

Clinics are waking up to this, and piling exceptional amounts of money into adverts and social media. A wise intervention, and although very unlikely to deliver a net gain, is at least increasing awareness with the public.

The UK needs a national media campaign – directly educating the public that in 2018 medical cannabis was legalised and through private clinics they can access the medicine. The costs of medication are reducing, services improving and evidence mounting – cannabis medicines are here to stay. Such an initiative would be supported by government and third sector organisations who want to save police time, reduce criminalisation and the power of gangs.

The implementation of such a campaign however is exceptional. To truly achieve change it needs funding well beyond the realms of current budgets of the UK industry and for it to be a legal intervention must be impartial – with no ties to any clinic or provider. It is also an intervention which will benefit everyone – not just those who fund it – a deep challenge to overcome in the current financial climate.

I spent some time this year researching what such an intervention would take – meeting some of the brightest minds who have shifted public debate on morally complex issues. The results of such work were exceptional – but so was the cost.

A part of me wishes I could send a message back to 2018, to those rooms full of excited investors and hedge fund managers and point out our house lacks foundations. We had the policy in place and the money rolling in – but we didn’t have the public. We needed to take a breath and deliver an education campaign like no other – but we saw the opportunity for profit before undertaking a survey.

It’s not all doom and gloom – patient numbers in the UK are increasing and product quality improving. The UK will be a key player in Europe – but if we truly want to unlock the market, someone has to dig deep and do so not out of personal gain but for the greater good.

Paul North is the Director of Volteface. After joining Volteface in 2017, Paul wrote his first policy report ‘Street Lottery’, which received extensive media coverage across the UK. Paul regularly comments in the media on drug treatment, cannabis use among young people, mental health and drugs education. Tweets @paul__north

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