5 Years of Medical Cannabis in the UK: progress but a long way to go
Five years ago, the UK stood at the edge of a revolutionary change in its medical and economic landscape: the legalisation of medical cannabis following a landmark legal battle.
Maple Tree directors Hannah Deacon, whose campaign to access legally prescribed medical cannabis for son Alfie led to the law change, and Prof Mike Barnes, who wrote the first prescription for this treatment in 2018, have stood at the forefront of the development of the industry over the last five years.
As Maple Tree pause at this five year mark to reflect on the journey so far, we're positive about the achievements so far and cautiously optimistic about the UK’s ability to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.
While the legislation did not bring about the changes that many hoped for in terms of patient access, the UK Medical Cannabis industry is one that continues to hold significant opportunities, with the potential to generate up to £2 billion in revenue and create 97,000 UK jobs, if taken seriously by government.
Figures from NHS Business Service Authority (NHSBSA) show consistent growth in the number of private prescriptions since 2019, with over 140,000 private prescriptions issued for unlicensed CBPMs between Nov 2018 -and Nov 2022.
Over the past five years, patient access to medical cannabis in the UK has seen a significant surge, indicating a positive shift towards broader acceptance and understanding of its therapeutic benefits. We now have upwards of 30,000 patients holding a prescription with the majority of patients, after three months of treatment, reporting significant improvements in their symptoms and an enhanced overall quality of life.
Challenges on the Horizon
However, with growth come growing pains. The path to progress hasn't been devoid of obstacles. As an industry in its nascent stages, the medical cannabis sector grapples with issues related to quality, distribution, and cultivation.
While prices of cannabis products are gradually aligning with market expectations, consultation costs remain variable, a testament to the industry's ongoing evolution. While supply and supply chains remain a concern, the horizon seems promising. By 2023/2024, the provision of domestic medical cannabis supply is set to greatly improve the landscape.
An especially pertinent issue is the ongoing issue of awareness, with over half of the UK population unaware that medical cannabis is legal, underscoring the necessity for education and awareness raising.
Lastly, and perhaps most critically, is the matter of prescribing. With prescribing limited only to specialist consultants acting privately, and just 5 NHS prescriptions, UK patients face significant challenges in accessing and finding this treatment. GP prescribing would both bring in on line with other countries and hugely widen access to this treatment.
The Road Ahead will require regulators and policymakers to listen and implement necessary changes in order to allow the Medical Cannabis sector to succeed.
So, what should the UK’s priorities be?
Maple Tree's Six Key Recommendations are to:
Improve NHS funding pathway: Addressing the barrier for the prescription of CBPMs, ensuring a clear funding pathway so that doctors who want to prescribe will not face obstacles, irrespective of the locality or financial barriers.
Allow GPs to initiate prescriptions: Expand the prescription base by allowing general practitioners, with the proper training, to prescribe cannabis for common conditions like pain, anxiety, and sleep issues without the need for a specialist consultation.
Adjust Proceeds of Crime Act 2002: Address the challenges faced by overseas producers wanting to invest in the UK's cannabis market. Ensure that they don't face barriers if they are complying with cannabis regulations in their own country, even if it's legal there.
Revisit NICE guidance: NICE guidance is seen as restrictive for the broader prescription of CBPMs on the NHS. The recommendation is to shift from a purely pharmaceutical approach and consider the abundant high-quality studies on cannabis.
Allow harvesting of hemp flower: Promote the cultivation of hemp flowers to extract CBD under an Industrial Hemp License. This could lead to more local investment and reduce dependence on imports, establishing a domestic supply chain for both CBPMs and the wellness industry.
Establish Office of Medicinal Cannabis: Maple Tree advocates for the creation of an 'Office of Medicinal Cannabis' to consolidate legislation, licensing, and health-related decisions under one umbrella, streamlining the processes.
Our recommendations aim to refine and bolster the UK's approach to medical cannabis, emphasising better access for patients, clearer guidelines for practitioners, and a more welcoming environment for business investments.
Here's to the next five years and beyond! We invite you to download and read our report in full to dive deeper into our findings and insights: