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London is set to host its first medical cannabis conference in October this year. Although cannabis is illegal in the UK, the organiser of this event, Saul Kaye is convinced it is on the verge of being decriminalised, and starting a rush of investment in the UK. Mr Kaye is an Israeli entrepreneur and this phenomenon is already gaining momentum in Israel with a multi-billion-dollar industry and around 500 companies. He is so confident about the UK changing its position on legalising medical marijuana he has claimed “If the UK doesn’t have a regulated cannabis industry in two years, I’ll retire”.

In the USA, where medical marijuana is legal is some states, it is also one of the fastest growing industries. Today, the industry is worth around $20bn internationally, with an expected forecast of $100bn by 2020.

However, controversy surrounds this drug and always has, given the conflicting evidence as to its benefits. Anti-drug campaigners are concerned that prolonged use can lead to mental health problems and side effects including hypertension.

On the other hand, supporters of medical marijuana advocate its use for pain management and to treat several conditions including epilepsy and Parkinson’s Disease. This may be timely for US drug makers since some have been hit with lawsuits from patients claiming harm by using their opioid-based medicines. Given the litigious climate, medical marijuana may be viewed as a safer alternative by many pharmaceutical companies.

What do UK lawmakers say?

Although it is currently illegal, medical marijuana may soon be legalised in the UK. According to the Home Office, the Government’s view is that cannabis should be subject to the “same regulatory framework” as other potential medicines, subject to approval from the MHRA.

It adds “The MHRA is open to considering marketing approval applications for medicinal cannabis products”. As such, the Home Office might not obstruct approval of medical cannabis products as part of its battle with recreational use.

At the moment, only a very small number of cannabis based medicines are approved in the UK. GW Pharmaceuticals Sativex, a peppermint flavoured mouth spray derived from cannabis, is indicated to treat loss of muscle control in people with multiple sclerosis. However, it is expensive and rarely prescribed.

In a drive to bring more treatments to patients who really need them, last autumn the MHRA announced that products containing cannabidiol (CBD), a derivative of cannabis, can be prescribed. It brings relief to patients without causing the psychoactive effects (ie the high) associated with cannabis, due to the absence of THC.

A landmark case of 11-year-old Billy Caldwell in Northern Ireland made headlines in April this year when he was prescribed CBD for severe epilepsy. At its worst, he suffered 100 seizures per day and his mother described the treatment as a “huge step forward”.

Mr Kaye believes the medical cannabis industry is worth around £100m and already has around 20 to 30 companies. He has been working with the MHRA “to get better policy” and believes that although Europe is behind the USA in terms of catching up, “it’s a significant industry that can’t be ignored anymore”.

GW Pharmaceuticals will benefit if cannabis is legalised in the UK. All their cannabis crop is grown in Norfolk in the UK’s largest greenhouse, and are harvested by British Sugar.

However promising the signs may appear, pharmaceuticals consultant Mick Cooper from Trinity Delta is wary of the claims that Britain is on the cusp of a “green rush”. He says: “they would have the same challenges as any drug developer – ie they would have to demonstrate safety, efficacy in a specific indication and consistency of product”.

He is concerned about producing a CBD product to the high standards demanded by the MHRA: “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”.

The legal stance for decriminalising cannabis in the UK may be changing. In September 2016, a number of MPs and peers participated in an enquiry about legalising cannabis and concluded it should be made legal in Britain.

This was followed 2 months later by a report from the Adam Smith Institute and VolteFace magazine stating the Government’s “dark ages” attitude to drugs had not stopped people from using and manufacturing them. The Adam Smith Institute argued that the Government cannot maintain its hard-line stance nor can it continue to ignore the calls to legalise cannabis. Daniel Pryor, education manager at the Institute said: “the main harms of criminalisation come from putting it into the black market, and in the knock on effect on the criminal justice system”.

“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”.

This report prompted another group of MPs calling for an end to what they referred to as the “embarrassment” of UK’s drug policy. The MPs included Peter Lilley and Michael Fabricant from the Conservative party, Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, Labour’s Paul Flynn as well Caroline Flynn, co-leader of the Green party.

It is important the British Government takes these concerns into consideration, given the huge potential for investment in this industry should cannabis be legalised for medical use. Otherwise, the UK risks falling behind the USA in the race for investment and growth in the medical cannabis industry.