For years now, the debate about cannabis and whether or not it should be legalised has raged across the western world. It has long since been legalised in countries such as the Netherlands, of course, while North American states Colorado and Washington also permitted the use of recreational cannabis back in 2012 and blazed a trail for others to follow.
While the UK has historically been reluctant to follow suit, the Tory government has recently paved the way to legalise medicinal cannabis nationwide. After launching a major review in the summer, the Conservatives have confirmed that the status of the drug has been overhauled following a number of independent studies.
This represents a major breakthrough in the UK, especially as it comes hot on the heels of cannabidiol (CBD) enjoying huge success in the market. So here’s everything you need to know about the UK’s plan, and what it means for both patients and recreational cannabis use.
What has Prompted this Change of Heart?
OK, we hear you ask, but exactly has promoted this change of heart? Whisper it quietly, but it could well be an increase in the number of high profile sickness case where medical cannabis was a potentially effective treatment option.
Take the case of Alfie Dingley, for example, who hit the headlines after being diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy that caused up to 150 seizures a month. After petitioning Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Dingley’s mother was granted a license to use medical cannabis as treatment and import this directly from Amsterdam.
Javid was compelled to act after intervening in the case of Billy Caldwell, who had also previously been granted a limited licence for the drug to be administered in hospital.
These striking and high profile cases have forced the government to act, with its historic position on the use of medical cannabis clearly outdated and having been exposed by recent scientific findings.
So, following advice from independent advisors, the decision has been taken to reschedule cannabis-derived medicines and eventually make them available on prescription.
How Exactly will the Law Change?
According to the previous law, all cannabis derivatives were placed in Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. This category involves substances that are thought to boast no therapeutic value at all, and the inclusion of medical cannabis in this list has always seemed slightly strange.
After all, marijuana is comprised of an estimated 400 separate compounds, a number of which are already legal in their own right and capable of providing several medical benefits. Take CBD oil, for example, which is sold without the psychoactive agent THC and has been proven to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and stress.
This compound, which has become a consumer hit and is now being featured in products such as coffee and ice cream, also interacts positively with CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout the body, aiding immune response and athletic recovery in the process.
The new law stipulates that medical cannabis products will subsequently be categorised in Schedule 2, however, meaning that some can now be prescribed to treat appropriate medical conditions.
What do the Experts have to Say?
The rescheduling followed a two-part review, which was commissioned by the Home Secretary and involved input by the Chief Medical Office for England and the Advisory Council from the Misuse of Drugs authority.
The findings confirmed various medical benefits associated with medical cannabis, including the relief of chronic pain relief, the onset of nausea and the mitigation of weight loss caused by certain conditions.
As a result, it was recommended that patients suffering certain conditions should be able to access cannabis-based treatments through prescription...
These include epilepsy and multiple sclerosis (MS), alongside Crohn’s disease, endometriosis and even autoimmune disorders such as HIV.
While government agencies still need to confirm the most viable treatment applications for medical cannabis, it’s believed that this process will be completed by the end of autumn. From this point in time, cannabis derivatives will be available for a wide array of ailments, while researchers will also be able to pursue further innovations in the future.
This is according to Dr. Tom Freeman, who works as a senior academic at The Royal College of Nursing. He claims that the government’s decision would have a “substantial impact on research by facilitating the development of safer and more effective medicines”, potentially revolutionising certain treatments in the process.
What Products will the New Law Impact on?
Not only will the government need to determine which conditions will be eligible for medical cannabis descriptions, but a full review will be required to verify and classify specific products.
The Department for Health and Social Care and the Medicine and Health Regulatory Alliance (MHRA) will take on this task, as they look to distinguish between marijuana and medical cannabis products.
The key will be to assess the composition and therapeutic qualities of each product, with THC oils likely to be approved for extreme conditions and cases of sickness. These will sit within the Schedule 2 category, subject to stringent testing and licensing procedures.
Compliant and safe products will then be made available on prescription at the discretion of doctors, although medical cannabis treatments are likely to be reserved for extreme cases in the near-term.
The Home Secretary alluded to this himself, hinting that serious or rare conditions will be given priority by healthcare professionals.
Now for the Big One – will Non-Medical Cannabis be Legalised?
Now if you’re a fan of non-medical cannabis, you may be getting a little hot under the collar at this point. Could the UK also be on the verge of legalising all cannabis products, following the recent example set by G7 neighbour Canada?
The short (and most likely disappointing) answer is no, with Javid quick to clarify that the recent law change will not lead to new regulations for recreational cannabis. In fact, the Home Secretary was adamant that non-medical products would not be legalised any time soon, while the substance itself will also remain classified as a Class B drug.
This means that the possession of cannabis will remain illegal nationwide, while the maximum prison sentence for those dealing the drug is capped at 14 years.
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but there’s no doubt that the wide-scale legalisation of cannabis remains years away on these shores.
OK, So What’s Next?
As we’ve already said, the government will spend the next few months reviewing specific medical cannabis products and their potential applications, before presenting more detailed regulations before the end of the year.
At this stage, a full range of medical cannabis treatments will be made available on prescription, following consultation with a licensed and practicing doctor.
In the meantime, medical marijuana has been officially reclassified as a Schedule 2 substance, so patients can apply to the Home Secretary to receive treatment in extreme instances.
While we’ve already established that other cannabis products will not be legalised any time soon, the question that remains is how will the new law impact on CBD oils and supplements?
It’s important to recognise that there are key differences between medical cannabis and CBD, and not least in terms of where they’re extracted from the hemp plant.
While the former tends to include high levels of the psychoactive agent THC (which gives marijuana users the much-loved “high”), CBD products cannot be sold unless that have less than 0.3% THC in their ingredients.
CBD products are also sold primarily as food supplements, which can aid your physical and mental wellbeing over-time. As such; they’re not manufactured to cure specific ailments or symptoms, but simply to provide a greater standard of living or improve the performance of athletes.
This means that both medical cannabis and CBD products will be able to exist in their own right, serving different purposes and sections of the market.
In fact, the new classification of medical cannabis products may aid the CBD market, as it will discourage unscrupulous and unregulated manufacturers from selling cannabinoid oils with higher levels of THC.
Instead, these can be marketed as medical cannabis products and potentially made available on a prescription basis.
The Last Word
While this may not represent the scale of evolution desired by some, the reclassification of medical cannabis products is long overdue and represents a major healthcare breakthrough in the UK.
Going forward, Brits will be able to access an array of medical cannabis and CBD products, helping them to improve their wellbeing in a number of different ways.
Above all else, we’ll finally see the immense medicinal qualities of cannabis realised on a huge scale and for the good of the public!