Editorial

A New Look at Medical Marijuana UK Laws

The last thing we need nowadays is another set of abbreviations to remember. But it turns out that the letters CBD and THC are going to be hard to ignore!

Gone are the days when cannabis was viewed by the world as a mere recreational drug. There is global scientific evidence of its medical benefits. Already, the US, The Netherlands, Canada, and South Africa have medical cannabis accessible to those in need of its benefits.

But as usual, there is always one that’s late to the party. This time around, it’s the Brits.

It turns out that the UK’s relationship with marijuana is far older and more complex than some might think.

Understanding this relationship might actually help us to make sense of why medical marijuana UK laws are so convoluted in our day. Read on to learn more.

What Is Medical Marijuana?

The marijuana plant has hundreds of chemical components called cannabinoids.

Each component has very special properties – some beneficial, some not so.

The two components that have medicinal properties are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is a psychoactive chemical. This is the chemical responsible for the “high”. It has been used to regulate appetite in AIDs patients. It also has the ability to reduce seizures in conditions such as epilepsy. For more information on THC products click here.

CBD has no psychoactive properties, but it does have pain-relieving effects. It has been used for chronic conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. It is also used for cancer-related symptoms like those involved in chemotherapy. It works at reducing nausea and anxiety.

Medical marijuana focuses on the extraction or development of these chemicals and may come in various forms like oils and pills.

The History of Marijuana in The UK

The UK government’s hatred of marijuana is tantamount to the founder of McDonald’s boycotting hamburgers! Let me explain.

In 16th century England, if you didn’t set apart a portion of your land to grow hemp for the monarchy, you were fined up to half a year’s wage.

This was due to the usefulness of the plant’s fibers in building naval equipment.

Hemp was such an important part of the economy that after running out of land to grow it, they used their ships to seek out new colonies.

It’s fair to say that The British Empire was essentially built on this now infamous plant.

We could argue that hemp had no recreational fame in the 16th century. Well, some say that Sonnet 76 by Shakespeare might tell a different tale. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, though, that cannabis gained its public identity as a drug in Britain.

This was thanks to an Irish physician named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy.

It all began on a stint researching botanical pharmacology with the British East India Company. On his return to Britain, O’Shaughnessy brought back a more complex strain of the hemp plant. O’Shaughnessy’s study of the plant advocated the use of this new strain for therapeutic purposes.

His notes discussed the use of “gunjah” (the Sanskrit term for hemp) in relieving rheumatism, tetanus 6, and convulsive disorders in infants.

Due to these studies, medical marijuana became a popular product all over the British Empire. Ever wondered where Jamaicans got the name “ganja”—well, there’s your answer!

The birth of the more recent regulations started in 1921 when drug addiction was no longer viewed as a disease, but a crime.

This gave rise to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 by the Home Office.

Cannabis managed to stay off the list for seven more years. It was finally added in 1928 after a revision of regulations at the International Opium Convention in 1925.

This began the demonization of marijuana as a medical substance. There have been no significant studies on it ever since.

In the last hundred years, there has been a sort of tug-of-war about the reputation of marijuana in the medical and political world. Classification of the drug has been a rollercoaster ride for the last 30 years. As a result, necessary pharmacological research remains to a minimum.

Marijuana’s view as a “street drug” began to grow in the ’50s with the influx of Caribbean immigrants. Since then, its association with gang activity continues to foster this stigma.

Its reputation as a recreational drug means that regulators have no interest in considering it as part of our medicine cabinets.

The Current State of Medical Marijuana UK Laws

It all began with a 12-year-old boy and his mother being seized by border officials in Heathrow airport.

Billy Caldwell, and his mother Charlotte, returned from Canada with marijuana oil in their baggage. But this was not for entertainment. For Billy, this was a lifeline.

Charlotte had privately prescribed anti-epileptic marijuana products to treat Billy. Charlotte claims, without this medication, Billy suffers up to 100 “life-threatening” seizures a day.

She left Heathrow with the medication confiscated!

This experience led to a campaign involving a letter to Nick Hurd, the then minister of the Home Office, verbally putting the blood of her child on his hands.

Her campaign along with the support of parents with similar stories led to the “rescheduling” of the drug in November 2018.

What Does Rescheduling Mean?

Before the Billy Caldwell campaign, marijuana was labeled as a Schedule 1 drug. This meant that it was recognized only as a recreational drug with no medical benefits.

Taking note of Caldwell’s pleas, the government rescheduled cannabis to Schedule 1. This allowed it to be included on the list of unlicensed prescribed medication on the NHS and apparently removing legal barriers for scientific research.

What sounds like a happy ending, though, was a fairy-tale written by bureaucrats!

For this reason, healthcare professionals rarely feel comfortable prescribing it to patients. So, although Medicinal marijuana is technically available on the NHS, it is near impossible to access.

There are abundant reports of people receiving prescriptions for marijuana-based products but are not able to acquire anything from pharmacies. And they’ve been the lucky ones!

Other reports claim that private practices charge £2,500 for 3 months worth of medication. It seems more like a cruel taunt rather than a response.

So, what’s with all the restrictions?

Licensing Issues With Medical Marijuana

To understand one of the biggest controversies behind Medical Marijuana UK regulation, we first need to know the difference between licensed and unlicensed medicine.

A licensed medicine has to be tested and approved by agencies like the MHRA or the EMA to ensure that it’s dosage and efficacy of the product. The medicine is then marketed with national guidelines on how it is to be used with the agency vouching for its safety.

Once a drug is licensed, it is often reformulated to be easier to consume. In the instance of cannabis, it can be synthesized into medication that is very specific to treating specific conditions.

An unlicensed medicine, although on occasions may be legal to use, does not have the backing of these agencies. The reasons may vary, from the cost of mass production to debates over the medicine’s safety.

As a result, the medication remains in a “crude” state with very obscure guidelines on how it should be used safely.

This is the case with medical marijuana in the UK.

Although there are very small components of the plant that have been used in licensed products globally, the main components are still avoided.

Because of marijuana’s recent rescheduling, there is not enough scientific data available in the UK. And due to its many components, it turns out that it is not the easiest plant to study.

Doctors and pharmacists would rather avoid the minefield that is the current medicinal marijuana UK regulation in the fear of losing their license for something they misunderstood.

It seems that Marijuana’s long history as a “street drug” continues to sully its reputation. From Parliament to agencies to health professionals; what will help us finally reconcile our past with the drug?

Watching the World

The issue is not that there is no scientific data available globally, it’s that there is none in the UK. To put it simply; we would rather do our own research.

It seems that the UK is skeptical about the findings of our neighbors.

Perhaps the ghosts of our Tudor ancestors haunt us and we are afraid to repeat the same mistakes. Who knows?!

Whatever the case is, there is still plenty of time for the UK to catch up with countries like the Netherlands and the US.

For example, in the Netherlands, medicinal marijuana has its own regulator (The Office of Medical Cannabis) belonging to the Ministry of Health.

The UK has no such agency.

At the moment, the main regulator is NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). But unlike the OMC, NICE doesn’t seem enthusiastic about their new assignment.

According to campaigners, the guidelines of NICE are purposely written to be ambiguous and restrictive. For example, The guideline simply states “patients in need”. Such obscure wording makes any doctor or pharmacist very uncomfortable.

Perhaps looking at the evolution of the US may give us hope, though. Their history with the drug was also a dark one.

In the 17th century, the view of medicinal marijuana mirrored that of their British cousins.

Along with the usual O’ Shaughnessy recommendations, it was even used to soothe the teething gums of babies.

In a similar way to the British Empire, in World war II, Americans used the hemp plant for rope and naval equipment and became somewhat of a patriotic symbol!

Their journey to criminalization was a little different from that of the UK’s, however.

Cannabis became more of a political symbol in the 1970s with the rise of counter-culture.

Although a similar movement occurred in the UK, certain regulations had already been in place by that time.

However, unlike their British cousins, the Americans were eager to study marijuana’s effects.

The effects of the study called “The Shafer Commission” lingered for decades as the criminalization tug-of-war raged.

Because of the existence of this study, states such as California and Colorado eventually legalized the medical use of marijuana in the ’90s and 2010s. Many states quickly followed suit. As of 2020, a third of the country has access to medical marijuana.

After more than 50 years of the criminalization of marijuana on a federal level, there seems to be a bright future for the drug being de-scheduled nationwide.

Over this side of the pond though, there seems to be no eagerness to study the drug any time soon.

There is a lot of speculation as to why this issue is so convoluted. Many claim that the law was enforced too quickly. The Home Office gave a response to the campaign by creating a sort of “zombie” law.

It seems that at this point if the UK doesn’t want to pay attention to our neighbors overseas, our fate is a vicious cycle. No data leads to fear, which leads to tighter restrictions, which leads to less opportunity for data.

Meanwhile, those in need of marijuana-based treatments continue to suffer. They are either forced to move country or get products illegally.

What Is the Future for Medical Marijuana UK Laws?

As we have seen, our history with cannabis has been a long one. But we have also seen that progress is organic.

With heroes like the Caldwells in the frontline, we can begin moving forward in changing our view of medical marijuana UK regulations and working harder to study and regulate it to the benefit of patients like Billy.

Although our relationship with this plant has come a long way, it’s clear that there is still much further to go.

For more news related to healthcare in the UK, keep exploring our site.

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