Yesterday the first-ever parliamentary debate on the UK’s rapidly growing medical cannabis industry took place in Westminster Hall, focusing on the ‘economic contribution of medical cannabis’ in the UK.
The debate, which was led by Conservative MP David Mundell, represented a significant step forward for the UK’s industry in being publicly recognised by the government for its potential for good, both for patients and the economy.
Furthermore, it saw MPs lay out in no uncertain terms where action needed to be taken by the government to enable both the UK’s medical cannabis and CBD industry to thrive.
While the subject of the debate broke new ground, the outcome felt all too familiar, with just half a dozen MPs turning up to take part and the government stating it has ‘done all it can to remove legislative barriers’, before placing the responsibility on the cannabis industry to ‘prove that their products are safe and effective’.
The economic case for medical cannabis
Mr Mundell, the former Secretary of State for Scotland, began the afternoon session by laying out his case for the economic and health benefits of the medical cannabis industry to those present, which included Minister of State for the Department of Health and Social Care Will Quince.
He explained that some 17,000 UK patients were estimated to have been prescribed medical cannabis last year, but that ‘for all its successes’, the UK’s medical cannabis industry ‘could be so much more’.
Making an effort the emphasise that the industry was ‘legitimate’, and that the products ‘don’t come from somebody’s loft, but from laboratories’, he explained that it was an industry of ‘rigorous standards’ and ‘stringent safety and security protocols’.
He continued that it was ‘not just the standard, but the volume which is of note’, with ‘some 59 hectares’ of cannabis harvested in the UK in 2021, but of those 329 tonnes, 213 were exported out of the UK, ‘more than half of the world total’.
Referencing Hilltop Leaf, which operates in his constituency, Mr Mundell said that beyond ‘these headline figures was the impact this industry can have on local businesses and communities’, and it would be capable of meeting 10% of the UK’s 2019 domestic needs’.
This economic case was echoed by major UK industry stakeholders, including Nicholas Morland, CEO of Tenacious Labs and Secretariat of the APPG for Industrial Hemp & CBD Products.
“Today’s Westminster Hall debate about the economic contribution of medical cannabis, and David Mundell MP’s call for a more coordinated and focused approach to supporting the sector, are both timely and important.
“As the APPG for Industrial Hemp and CBD Products reports, the UK cannabis sector has the potential to generate up to £5.5 billion in annual tax revenue and deliver up to 594,000 jobs, a great many of them in rural areas. Medical cannabis will provide a large chunk of this.
“The UK industry is already significant and growing. As Mr Mundell rightly points out, there are still obstacles to overcome in terms of access to prescriptions, and the need for greater knowledge and understanding among medical professionals.”
“Parents have struggled to raise thousands of pounds just to keep their children alive, this government has ignored them. Once we start highlighting the potential to make money, the UK government’s ears prick up” – Ronnie Cowen, SNP
These obstacles, according to Mr Mundell, include an ‘incoherent approach’ from the UK government which is ‘pointing those who are desperate towards illegal markets’.
They also ‘stretch to UK’s CBD industry’, which he said was the ‘second largest in the world’, with laws which require hemp farmers to destroy most of the plant hampering growth.
Furthermore, he said that the fact the UK imports the majority of its products, meant ‘UK supply chains do not benefit’.
Celadon’s CEO James Short, who said he was ‘delighted that politicians are recognising the importance of the UK’s burgeoning and cutting-edge medical cannabis sector’, emphasised this point.
“Currently, patients prescribed medical cannabis in the UK are reliant on imported product, often facing lengthy delays and high costs. UK-based cultivators and manufacturers, such as Celadon, are essential to alleviating these barriers to access, and we welcome MPs’ timely consideration of the challenges facing the industry and patients.”
Finally, Mr Mundell called on the UK government to ‘appoint a senior advisor with a mandate to engage directly with the industry, with coherent and consistent oversight’.
‘A consensus has already been reached’
Mr Mundell’s Conservative colleague Sir Jeremy Wright followed his lead, clarifying that today’s debate was not about whether medical cannabis should be legalised, as a consensus on that matter had already been reached in 2018.
He said: “All of us that thought that was the right change to make, had rather expected that considerably more progress would have been made by now to ensure those products were made available. It is a profound sadness and matter of regret and concern that there are only 5 NHS prescriptions.”
Adding that we need to ‘follow through on the logic of that decision’, Mr Wright asked why the UK would ‘create a demand then refuse to allow domestic producers to meet that demand’.
He was followed by the SNP’s Ronnie Cowen, a long time advocate for cannabis reform who told the room that he had now raised these issues 36 times.
“Every time the UK government has ignored my pleas and reverted to the default position of ‘cannabis is bad’”.
Mr Cowen said that while he had tried his best to support parents and patients who have consistently lobbied the government for reform, he ‘was clearly wrong in (his) approach’.
— Cannabis Industry Council (@UKCanCouncil) April 20, 2023
“I appealed to the moral and ethical approach, but what I found today is that I should have brought forward the economic argument instead.
“Parents have struggled to raise thousands of pounds just to keep their children alive, this government has ignored them. Once we start highlighting the potential to make money, the UK government’s ears prick up. If that’s what it takes to get the government to engage, then so be it, because engage they must.”
In some more choice words for the government, Mr Cowen said that the ‘argument that we need more research is no longer viable’, and that the government’s knowledge of the industry had to increase if it were to capitalise on its potential.
Finally, he argued that for the industry to truly flourish, cannabis would need to be recategorised, a suggestion which was quickly shot down by Mr Quince.
The government’s response
With no ministers representing the Home Office’s business interests present at the debate, the response focused largely around medical discussions.
However, addressing calls for the expansion of the CBD industry, Mr Quince said the Home Office has ‘no plans to permit cannabis cultivation without a licence, nor to remove the distinction between the industrial hemp regime and the cannabis cultivation regime’.
Referencing the ongoing Novel Foods regulation of the CBD industry, he added that the ‘Home Office has sought the advice of the ACMD, and they intend to respond to the ACMD’s recommendations on this matter shortly’.
Moving on to medical cannabis, and specifically why NHS prescriptions had moved at a glacial pace, Mr Quince reverted to the government’s well trodden arguments.
“There are clinical concerns about the limited evidence about the safety and efficacy of the unlicensed cannabis based products. Only in a few conditions have enough clinical trials been done to prove scientifically that the drug is safe and effective.
“However, and I want to labour this point, progress is being made. The government has done all it can to remove legislative barriers, but it is now largely up to the cannabis industry to prove that their products are safe and effective.”
In an effort to argue some progress had been made, Mr Quince announced that two long-touted cannabis randomised control trials (RCTs) had now been confirmed by the NIHR and NHS England.
He used the session to highlight a ‘tender opportunity’ that will be launched by University College London ‘in the next few weeks’.
“UCL are seeking a supplier to assist in a ‘world first’ RCT comparing cannabis based medicines that contain CBD and THC in the treatment of drug resistant epilepsies.”
When challenged by Mr Cowen on whether he would move his severely epileptic child onto a placebo for the sake of a RCT, thus seeing them risk a return to having dozens of seizures a day, Mr Quince was unable to provide a convincing answer.
“That is a very difficult question to answer. What we do need is people to take part in clinical trials,” he said.
Finally, placing the burden firmly on the cannabis industry, Mr Quince said: “I am absolutely committed to better determine why the cannabis industry is not, in the way that so many other pharmaceutical companies do, investing in the routine research required to prove that their products are safe and effective.”