25th-26th October CANNATECH IS COMING TO LONDON!
In October the UK will host what is believed to be its first medical cannabis conference, an international jamboree of weed-based therapies in London.
It may seem like an eccentric choice, given cannabis is illegal in Britain. But Saul Kaye, the Israeli entrepreneur behind the event, is confident the country is on the cusp of decriminalising marijuana and ushering in a “green rush” of investment. It is a phenomenon that has already gripped his homeland, creating a multibillion-dollar industry and around 500 companies. It is also one of the fastest-growing industries in the US, where medical marijuana is legal in some states.
Internationally the industry is worth around $20bn (£15.5bn) and is forecast to reach $100bn by 2020. The UK is a long way behind.
“If the UK doesn’t have a regulated cannabis industry in two years I’ll retire,” Kaye says confidently
Cannabis therapies are not without controversy and there is conflicting evidence on their benefits, however. Anti-drugs campaigners also point to research showing that sustained use can lead to mental health problems and side effects including hypertension.
Supporters of the marijuana therapies say that they can help manage pain and also treat a wide variety of conditions, from epilepsy to Parkinson’s Disease. At a time when US drug companies face a flood of lawsuits from people claiming they have been harmed by opioid-based painkillers, medical marijuana is back on the agenda as a potentially safer alternative.
Will the UK join the party ?
The law remains an obstacle, but could soon change. The Home Office highlighted a blog by its junior minister Sarah Newton on drugs policy in April, the notes to which state the Government’s view is that cannabis should be subject to “the same regulatory framework” as other potential medicines, subject to approval from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
It adds: “The MHRA is open to considering marketing approval applications for medicinal cannabis products.” So the Home Office might not stand in the way of medical cannabis products as part of its battle with recreational use.
The MHRA might have objections though. All medicines must meet its standards for effectiveness and safety.
So far only a very small number of cannabis-based drug treatments are approved for use in the UK. Sativex, a peppermint-flavoured mouth spray derived from cannabis produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, is an approved treatment to ease loss of muscle control in people with multiple sclerosis, but it is costly and rarely prescribed.
More therapies are on their way. Last autumn, the MHRA determined that products containing cannabidiol (CBD), a derivative of cannabis, can be prescribed. It was a breakthrough for medical cannabis. It does not contain the psychoactive part of cannabis, called THC, that gives people a high.
In April a CBD product was prescribed for the first time for 11-year-old Billy Caldwell in Northern Ireland for treating his severe epilepsy, which at its worst was causing 100 life-threatening fits a day. His mother Charlotte described the prescription as “a huge step forward”.
Despite the constraints faced by medical cannabis in the UK, Kaye estimates the CBD industry here is worth £200m already and boasts around 20-30 companies. He says he has “been working with the regulator to get better policy”.
At the London conference CannaTech, in a former brewery in the east of the city, he expects a mix of international companies and investors to mingle. In the US – where more than 20 states permit cannabis for medical purposes – the investment market is big business. It even boasts investors specialising just in cannabis companies, such as Privateer Holdings, which invests in businesses with the family of the late Bob Marley.
Kaye says Europe has some catching up to do, but adds: “It’s a significant industry that can’t be ignored any more.”
GW Pharmaceuticals is one of the firms that would stand to benefitshould medical cannabis products take off in the UK. The firm behind Sativex was listed on London’s junior market Aim until last autumn, but in an indication that this is not a hotbed for cannabis companies, it switched to Nasdaq in the US.
At the time its chief executive, Justin Gover, said this was due to its investor base being “dominated by US investors”. Gover stresses “we are resolutely a British company”, however. All of GW’s cannabis plants are grown here, with most harvested by British Sugar in the country’s biggest glasshouse in Norfolk. Mick Cooper, an analyst at pharmaceuticals consultant Trinity Delta, is sceptical the UK is on the cusp of a green rush.
“They would have the same challenges as any drug developer – i.e. they would have to demonstrate safety, efficacy in a specific indication and consistency of product,” he says.
“It is worth emphasising the manufacturing issue, as the levels of THC and other chemicals produced by a cannabis plant will vary depending on conditions. It might be very difficult to produce a medicinal cannabis that is sufficiently consistent to meet the demands of the MHRA.”
Cannabis could make its breakthrough via a different route
Political pressure has been building over the past year to legalise cannabis altogether.
Last September an inquiry led by a cross-party group of MPs and peers concluded that cannabis should be made legal for medicinal uses.
Two months later another group of MPs – including Conservatives Peter Lilley and Michael Fabricant, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, Labour’s Paul Flynn and the co-leader of the Green party Caroline Lucas – called for an end to the “embarrassment” of the UK’s drugs policy.
They were prompted by a report by the Adam Smith Institute and VolteFace magazine that argued the Government’s “dark ages” approach to drugs had not stopped people using and manufacturing them. The Liberal Democrats later put cannabis decriminalisation in their manifesto.
The Conservatives have traditionally taken a hard line on drugs policy. As home secretary, Theresa May was resistant to any softening of drugs law.
The Adam Smith Institute argues the party cannot continue to ignore calls to legalise cannabis. “The main harms of criminalisation come from putting it into the black market, and in the knock-on effect on the criminal justice system,” says Daniel Pryor, education manager at the institute.
“In the medium term we see [decriminalisation] as a possibility. If the Conservatives want to reconnect with young voters it would be a very good way of demonstrating they’re in tune with their concerns.”
The political atmosphere around marijuana is crucial too for the investors hoping to back a medical revolution. As the US and Israel forge ahead, supporters of the industry say Britain risks failing to stake its claim on a new frontier.
By Iain Withers in the Telegraph
photographs credits – Facebook &DAVID MCNEW / GETTY