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UK Exports Medical Cannabis But Denies Its Own Citizens

Matt Weeks
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The UK will export cannabis but is hard pressed to ease access for its own citizens.

Pop quiz: Do you know which country will export cannabis more than anywhere else in the world this year? And, for bonus points: Do you know why hardly anyone in that country has a prescription, despite making great money off of and legalizing medicinal cannabis (albeit with heavy restrictions)?

The answer to the first question is — surprisingly — the United Kingdom. The answer to the second question is a complicated mess of politics, tradition, and trying to keep calm and carry on.

World’s Largest Cannabis Exporter

Yes, Great Britain, home of Harry Potter, is also home to the world’s biggest efforts to export cannabis. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the UK produced 70% of the global medical cannabis supply. Or nearly 95 metric tons (just over 104 U.S. tons).

Other major exporters include Canada and the Netherlands (no surprises there), and in January Israel became the third country to export medical cannabis. Given what we know of each of these nations, with Israel quickly taking the lead in cannabis research, it’s a hardly a surprise that they’ve trail-blazed with exports.

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It should be noted that medicinal cannabis was illegal in the United Kingdom until 2018. For many years, parliament and businesses held two competing views on the substance. On the one hand, conservative politicians insisted that cannabis holds no medical value whatsoever. On the other hand, private businesses were raking in the pounds from selling medicinal herb to other countries. This pro-business, anti-consumer circumstance led to many Brits illegally buying their own medical cannabis.

What the Law Says

It may be fully legal to export cannabis, but it’s not clear that the recent laws actually make prescribing medical cannabis legal.

How could that be? Well, much like in America, the British have long classified cannabis as a substance without therapeutic benefits. The American government labels cannabis a Schedule I. Across the pond, it’s called Class A. Or it was. It has since been downgraded to Class B. But that designation still comes with a host of restrictions.

In November 2018, the UK government approved medical cannabis after a long and hard-fought battle against old fashioned ideas. The most potent form of advocacy came from the two cases of epileptic children whose conditions were only improved by cannabis-based medicine.

The fate of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley softened the hearts of the nation. Reformers pushed through what might be the world’s broadest medical cannabis laws. These went into effect in early 2019. The new law legalizes a broad range of cannabis treatments, with the notable exception of smokable cannabis, which is still off-the-table. The public greeted the hastily written law as a major win for British patients. The was just one problem: British doctors.

And sadly, Billy Caldwell is one of those patients who have continues to suffer. He continues to face struggles to gain his medical cannabis through the NHS.

Cannabis and the British Medical Community

British physicians reportedly do not feel comfortable prescribing medical cannabis. These doctors are worried they could lose their licenses. As of now, the UK has not licensed medical cannabis products for distribution or prescription. A British doctor in the public system cannot simply order a prescription for a cannabis drug, but instead must go through a lot of hurdles. However, the guidelines do allow for prescription as long as there is a justified medicinal need. So doctors’ hesitation seems to do more with a fear of their own lack of knowledge about the uses of medical cannabis.

Why? A lot of it has to do with the nationalized health care system in Britain (NHS). The system has a lot of bureaucratic rules and guidelines that haven’t yet caught up to the new laws. A specialist must prescribe cannabis, but so far these are only found in the incredibly expensive private healthcare sector. And while the National Health System promises to publish a set of guidelines for physicians by the end of 2019, there are still a lot of patients out there who could use help now.

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The Limits of Private Vs Public Healthcare

British doctors worry that, since cannabis is still a Class B drug, prescribing could leave them professionally vulnerable to conservative interpretations of the law. This is a bigger issue for doctors in the NHS than in the private sector. The latter are not subject to administrative overview.

So far, it has been predominantly Brits who can afford private healthcare have managed to get medical cannabis prescriptions. And even this, it’s been at a great cost. Most of the pharmacies don’t stock cannabis drugs, and (amazingly) have to import the medicine from elsewhere. Didn’t we start this story with the factoid that UK is one of the biggest exporters of medical cannabis in the world?

Keep calm and carry on? I’m not sure if I’d be able to do that given the circumstances.

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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