Medical cannabis has been legal in the UK since 2018, but the NHS has administered only five prescriptions thus far, compared with a staggering 90,000 via private clinics. As it stands, the public sector prescribes medical cannabis for three health conditions: nausea from chemotherapy, spasticity from multiple sclerosis and severe epilepsy. However, in reality, the NHS has failed to make these products truly accessible without going through the private sector.

The problem here is that, while most cannabis-based medicinal products are no longer legally prohibited, they have still not been granted a licence for use in the UK. As a result, doctors need to apply for specialist funding any time they want to prescribe medical cannabis, or request their NHS trust to fund them directly. Furthermore, they can only do that after all existing licensed medications have been tried and shown to fail. To make matters worse, because these products are unlicensed, doctors could be open to legal challenges from patients in the case of negative side effects.

Consequently, NHS doctors almost never prescribe medical cannabis, which is why a very rapidly growing number of patients are turning to private clinics for medical cannabis, such as Mamedica, the UK’s leading medical cannabis clinic, which offers bespoke cannabis-based prescriptions to patients across psychiatry, neuropathic pain, cancer-related illness and neurology.

“Medical cannabis is a vital support for my anxiety and physical ailments, mainly my scoliosis,” said one UK user of medical cannabis (who is also a healthcare professional), who spoke to Investment Monitor on condition of anonymity due to the continued stigmas around the use of cannabis in the UK. “I wish it was readily available on the NHS. What if I had a more serious condition? I wouldn’t be able to access it. Now I have to go private, which costs four times more than buying it illegally.”

In Mamedica’s recent national study, it found that one-in-six (16%) UK recreational cannabis smokers now only use it to treat a health condition. This comes amid a new report from earlier in 2023 that found some 1.8 million people are obtaining cannabis through the ‘grey’ or illicit market to self-medicate.

A serious target for investment

Medical cannabis in the UK is far from a distant US reality, once only known to Brits via Hollywood films. Hundreds of thousands of individuals now rely on it for pain relief. 

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Despite being legal since 2018, the applications of medical cannabis have only recently been discussed publicly. In late April, MPs held a debate on the contribution of medical cannabis to the UK economy, as legislation towards increased legalisation grows warmer.

During the debate, David Mundell, MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, raised key points around the prospects for the UK medicinal cannabis industry, highlighting the potential of a £1bn contribution to the economy and the creation of 100,000 jobs by 2024. By 2028, it is predicted to rise higher, to $8.8bn, making it the second-largest in Europe and potentially serving 1% of the country’s population.

However, to date, 100% of the medicinal cannabis products prescribed across the UK are imported, a shocking fact given the country is the world’s largest exporter of medicinal cannabis (making it an outlier in the global market). Indeed, the UK has a number of major indoor-marijuana producers, some of which have significant foreign investment.

“For me, it wasn’t until I spent time in California and visited a medical cannabis dispensary for the first time that I realised the potential it had to improve the lives of people who were on much stronger medications,” said Jon Robson, CEO and founder of Mamedica, which tailors its products to an individual’s presenting symptoms, from chronic pain to psychological difficulty. 

Investors are already pouring money into the UK cannabis industry, with a special focus on medical applications. This injection is only likely to increase (with even more vigour) if the NHS stops dragging its feet with regards to medical cannabis prescriptions, an issue that requires Westminster to step up and implement business (and patient) friendly policy reform.