Steve Moore: The government should be proud, not scared, of the UK’s market for cannabis products

21 Mar

Steve Moore is the co-founder of the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis and Volteface. He is a former Chief Executive of the Big Society Network.

On Monday 11 June, 2018 Charlotte Caldwell and her 14-year-old son Billy landed at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 from Toronto. Caldwell had spent the previous weekend having Billy treated at Sick Kids, the nearest equivalent Canada has to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Billy, who suffers from status epilepsy, was assessed by Canada’s leading paediatric neurologist and prescribed a cannabis-based medical product that was the subject of an active clinical trial.

But upon arriving at Heathrow this medicine was confiscated by UK Border Control as a breach of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Over the next week, Caldwell took to the media to demand the medicine’s return. Then Home Secretary Sajid Javid only relented to this the following Friday evening, when Billy was rushed to the ICU at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. The confiscated medicine was given to his treating consultant the next morning.

Following this, Javid instructed the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, to urgently review the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Her report ended 50 years of campaigns to legalise medicinal use of the plant. The new law legalising medicinal use took effect from 1 November, 2018.

Medicinal marijuana has long been widely available in the US. However, a new innovation that has emerged in the past decade could transform access to cannabis products and pose a huge challenge for regulators. Since the late 1990’s, a Harvard-educated former anti-war activist Fred Gardner has been researching cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating cannabis compound more commonly known as CBD. His studies in rodents and cell cultures have suggested it could provide relief from seizures, pain, anxiety and inflammation. Botanists and clinicians increasingly took his work seriously from 2011. Gradually, a whole new industry emerged from the cultural underground of the United States into mainstream ubiquity across the world.

It was a development that confounded regulators everywhere, including, until recently, the UK. Now, next to the US, we are the second largest market  for CBD products. In February 2020, the UK Food Standards Agency became the first regulator in the world to commit to securing safety approval of CBD products. The initial tranche of approvals will emerge in the next year effectively de-risking the product category for institutional investors.

While Gardiner was pursuing his studies, a British scientist, Dr Geoffrey Guy, undertook his own research and engaged intensively with the UK medical and political establishment. Guy’s energetic advocacy and campaigning led directly to the Chief Inspector of Drugs at the Home Office issuing him the licences required to create GW Pharmaceuticals, after a long period of negotiations. It is the world’s largest legal cannabis cultivator and was acquired by Jazz Pharmaceuticals in 2021 for $7.6 billion. 

Although largely unacknowledged, the UK has had a huge and positive influence on the fast growing global cannabinoid market. We have facilitated the creation of the most successful medical cannabis company in history and now lead the world by being the first to regulate the most popular CBD product.

However, none of this success was designed in Whitehall. This was highlighted by George Freeman, Theresa Villiers and Iain Duncan Smith in last year’s independent Task Group on Innovation and Regulatory Reform report. This near-billion pound industry exists as a product of the Geoffrey Guys and Charlotte Caldwells of this world and successive governments reluctantly consenting to their efforts. Any public policy deliberations about cannabis in the UK remain hazardous, as Sir Professor Robin Murray’s seminal South London studies into potential psychotic symptoms of use still shrouds almost every conversation.

Germany, amongst other countries, is now considering how to follow Canada in legalising and regulating cannabis for adult recreational use. But this is still not anywhere close to being the case in the UK. Both main parties have a commitment to reducing public consumption of temptation goods that is wholly incompatible with any attempts to create a commercial market for pot in the UK.

The global cannabis market that now exists is in the medicinal and nutraceutical space. Britain has the potential to become the world leader in product research and innovation, building on our strategic prowess in life sciences. Achieving this will require a combination of adroit, cross-departmental public policy husbandry, smarter regulation and intelligent private-public investment. Stewardship, not containment, must be the watchword.

The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis have announced today that Professor Christopher Hodges will chair an industry wide review of regulation and public policy relating to the UK’s legal cannabis industry. Hodges, who is becoming an increasingly influential thinker inside Whitehall regarding new approaches to regulation, will publish his report in May. Upon its receipt Ministers like George Freeman will have the first detailed blueprint setting out how the UK can fast-track its way to become the global leader in cannabinoid innovation.