The green wave of cannabis legalization is coming to the U.K.
Britain’s government has officially allowed some physicians to prescribe medical marijuana, beginning last week. It will take time to import a supply, and many doctors may not know how to use it, but the U.K.’s 66 million people add a significant new market for the booming global industry.
While Europe has lagged behind Canada and some U.S. states in legalization, sentiment around medical cannabis moved U.K. officials to act this year. Three-quarters of British people think doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, according to a poll by YouGov in May. The issue heated up over the summer as parents of children who used the drug to treat seizures pressed the government for legalization.
In October, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that cannabis would become legal on Nov. 1 for specialist doctors, not general practitioners, to prescribe for any condition. Javid cited “heartbreaking cases involving sick children” as a motivation for the change.
Medical cannabis will still face a number of restrictions. Doctors will need approval on a case-by-case basis before issuing a prescription. The Royal College of Physicians doesn’t recommend cannabis for pain treatment, so patients may not be able to get it through the National Health Service for that purpose.
Supply shouldn’t be an issue, according to Cosmo Feilding Mellen, managing director at a British unit of Canopy Growth Corp. Companies will apply for import licenses in the coming weeks, he said. That should bring Canadian product to the market by the end of the year.
“Based on the clinical guidelines, we’ll import as appropriately and quickly as possible,” he said by phone. “We expect there to be a huge demand, unmet demand for medicinal cannabis.”
Canopy will unroll a range of products derived from the plant, including oils and gel capsules, to meet the demand. Feilding Mellen expects any appropriately licensed pharmacy to be able to sell them.
The U.K. is the biggest producer of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes, according to the United Nations. GW Pharmaceuticals Plc, based in Cambridge, England, grows about 20 tons of cannabis annually at greenhouses the size of football fields.
The plants, genetically modified to remove psychoactive properties, are used to produce Epidiolex, a prescription drug for children with severe epilepsy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the treatment in June, making it the first prescription medicine derived from cannabis permitted to be sold in the U.S.
A major hurdle in the U.K. will be to get doctors familiar enough with the plant to prescribe it.
“The general public won’t see a difference for a few months, until slowly but surely more doctors are willing to prescribe,” said Michael Barnes, a neurologist and medical cannabis advocate. Barnes, who co-authored a paper for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform on cannabis in 2016, first encountered it as a medicine years ago when he worked with multiple sclerosis patients who bought the drug illegally.
After hearing of its benefits from users, “I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake, this is a medicine that does some good,’” Barnes said.
To get more doctors educated, Barnes will help launch a free online course on Monday through the London-based Academy of Medical Cannabis. The project was funded by Canadian company Aphria Inc. and the U.K.-based investment group European Cannabis Holdings but will operate independently of those organizations, Barnes said.
As the drug becomes available, some patients say they’re looking forward to the prospect of relief.
“It’s a life-changing moment for a lot of people,” said Jake Barrow, 31, of London.
Barrow has been left with pain and eating issues since he suffered a diaphragmatic hernia at birth. The only medication he’s found that works is cannabis. With legalization, he looks forward to safe, professional access to an effective treatment.
“I need to be given the medicine and some guidance so I can learn how to use it properly,” Barrow said by phone. “I’ll probably break down and cry when I get outside the pharmacy.”