Lawrence Stephens

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Ricardo Gaeda discusses the deregulation of the cannabis market in The Times

June 2024

Ricardo’s article was published in The Times , 6 June 2024, and can be found here.

In the biggest shake-up of federal drug policy for more than 50 years, the US Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous drug. The move came as a belated response to even greater liberalisation that has occurred over many years at a state level: since California became the first state to legalise cannabis for medical purposes in 1996, a further 37 US states have followed its example. After several states decriminalised cannabis in the 1970s, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalise the drug’s recreational use in 2012. Today, cannabis is legal for medical use in 40 states, with recreational/adult-use legal in 24 states. 

Although federal reclassification would not automatically result in national legalisation, it could result in lower tax rates for the cannabis industry and less restrictions on scientific research. In anticipation of cannabis’ wider medical usage and reduced regulation, leading to a number of listed cannabis companies’ stocks have reached new highs.

The momentum of potential investor interest will inevitably extend to the UK and Europe as companies seek to expand their cannabis operations. This will however depend upon a comparable shift in legislation and regulation.

In the EU, the legislative pendulum has already begun to swing. Cannabis has been available for recreational use in Amsterdam’s coffee shops for decades, as part of the Dutch policy of toleration.  More recently, as at 1 April 2024, Germany decriminalised personal possession and allowing the cultivation of up to three cannabis plants at home. Notably, most EU countries already permit, or are considering to allow, the medical use of cannabis or some form of cannabinoids.

However, progress on patient access in the UK continues to be painfully slow. Despite the law being changed in November 2018 to allow the prescribing of unlicensed cannabis-based products for medicinal use (CBPMs),  there are only a handful of prescriptions for CBPMs made available through the NHS, mainly used for the treatment of children with epilepsy. The vast majority of CBPM prescriptions are made through private clinics, meaning only those able to afford private medical care can obtain the medicines while their less affluent peers are denied access.

The current government has shown little appetite to confront the issue in parliament while Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has repeatedly made it clear that he has “no intention” of changing the UK drug laws if his party wins the next general election.

It is therefore evident that a long road to legislative reform may lie ahead.

But if the UK is to keep pace with its global counterparts in medical cannabis regulation, it is vital that the next government reforms its approach to medicinal cannabis – not only to help those with chronic health conditions, but also to enable a viable new industry to be established without being hampered by unnecessarily restrictive regulation.