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The Long Road to Legalisation: Tracing the Evolution of Medical Cannabis Law in the UK

In recent years, the legal standing of medical cannabis in the United Kingdom has undergone numerous transformations. Throughout history, cannabis was classified as a Class B substance according to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, which rendered its possession and distribution illegal. On the contrary, medical cannabis was partially legalised in 2018 through the implementation of fresh regulatory measures. The current legal status of medical cannabis in the United Kingdom is as follows:

Legalisation in 2018: The United Kingdom government declared in 2018 that physicians specialising in cannabis-based medicines who determine that the benefit exceeds the risk would be permitted to legally prescribe such medications. This followed high-profile cases in which medical cannabis appeared to ameliorate the symptoms of severe epilepsy in children. Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, stated that physicians could prescribe cannabis if a clinical necessity existed.

As per the recently implemented regulations, medicinal products derived from cannabis that satisfy safety criteria and comprise minimal quantities of THC, the psychoactive compound responsible for inducing intoxication, may be prescribed. The medications can only be prescribed by a specialist physician and not a primary care physician. If physicians determine that a patient has a “unmet special clinical need” that cannot be satisfied by licenced medications, they may prescribe the drugs.

The reform enacted in 2018 had a restricted extent. It only permitted medical cannabis in specific circumstances, subject to the sanction of a specialist, and not in a broader sense. Cannabis use for recreational purposes remained prohibited.

At this time, medical cannabis remains legally permissible in the United Kingdom solely upon a specialist physician’s prescription and compliance with stringent quality regulations. It must be determined by the physician that no alternative licenced medication is capable of fulfilling the patient’s requirements. Access remains extremely restricted due to the reluctance of many physicians to prescribe cannabis. As of now, only a few hundred prescriptions have been issued, according to estimates.

The United Kingdom recognises only a limited number of cannabis-based medicines as compliant, with Sativex for multiple sclerosis being one example. The overwhelming majority of internationally available products do not comply with UK regulations. The public is still prohibited from cultivating, possessing, or distributing any form of unprocessed medical cannabis.

Difficulties and Controversies: Although the legislative modification constituted a progressive measure, there are still numerous obstacles that encircle the accessibility of medical cannabis. Protesters contend that despite the continued stringency of regulations, a significant number of patients continue to be unable to obtain essential products for the relief of their ailments. The following are examples of ongoing controversies:

Few physicians are inclined to write prescriptions. A lack of training or guidance regarding cannabis remedies is cited by many.

The absence of NHS funding and formal prescribing guidelines forces patients to pursue private treatment.

It is argued that the requirement to demonstrate that no other licenced remedies are effective is impractical.

-The majority of patients find private prescriptions prohibitively expensive.

-Reduced domestic production necessitates the expensive importation of the majority of goods.

Some argue that the emphasis on isolated CBD overlooks the advantages of whole-plant extracts.

A further concern is that permitting medical cannabis could pave the way for its legalisation for recreational use. Nevertheless, the government of the United Kingdom maintains that there are no intentions to alter cannabis’s status as a recreational substance.

Ahead of Time:
A number of recent occurrences suggest that the United Kingdom might further ease its restrictions on access to medical cannabis. The government conducted a consultation regarding the reduction of restrictions in 2021. NHS prescriptions are anticipated to commence in early 2023. Additional legalisation in nations such as the United States and Canada increases the need for reform. Although recreational use will continue to be prohibited, patient advocates advocate for increased accessibility of medical cannabis on the basis of physicians’ discretion rather than exceptional medical necessity. Although the medical cannabis UK law is subject to ongoing development, complete legalisation without exception is not anticipated in the near future.