CMC announces the first-ever UK Medicinal Cannabis Summit in 2021

The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) in the UK recently announced its plans to convene the country’s first-ever medicinal cannabis conference. The UK Medicinal Cannabis Summit 2021: Evidence, Policy & Regulation is scheduled to be held on the 15th of April this year. It will bring together leading global researchers and senior British policymakers to engage in discussions on the use of cannabis-based medicinal products (CBMPs).

The conference will have three sessions – Evidence and Real-World Data, Cannabinoids in Practice, and Cannabinoids in Epilepsy. These will tackle basic and clinical research paths, regulatory opportunities, and challenges in the industry. In addition to an illustrious roster of panelists, the keynote speakers will include George Freeman, MP,  member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR), Dr. Paul Chrisp, Director, Centre for Guidelines, NICE and Professor Roger Pertwee, Emeritus Professor, University of Aberdeen, Honorary Fellow of the British Pharmacological Society (BPS).

CMC is the country’s first and only industry association for businesses and investors operating in the CBMP market. One of their key areas of activity is the development and advocacy for better medical cannabis policies. Incidentally, the current state of cannabis policy in the country is an area of considerable debate. The CMC Summit is hence a welcome step in the right direction.

What does the UK’s current regulatory landscape look like?

The UK legalised medicinal cannabis products in late 2018. Although recreational cannabis remains a Class B illegal substance, studies suggest that the market for legal cannabis could see a multibillion-pound boom over the next few years. The numbers could be higher if CBD products are taken into account. And yet, the UK continues to withstand the global trend of cannabis law reform, while maintaining a blind eye to this emerging opportunity.

Despite the legal status, the prescribing regime for CBMPs is highly restrictive to this day. The use of medicinal cannabis is permissible only for a few conditions; these include severe forms of childhood epilepsy, nausea caused by chemotherapy, and muscle spasticity due to multiple sclerosis. Even in these cases, patients can receive the treatment only if referred by a specialist GP or consultant doctor listed on the General Medical Council’s specialist register.

The existing regulation came into play after a high-profile media campaign surrounding the cases of young Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell. Both children were epilepsy sufferers, whose seizures seemed to be alleviated by cannabis oil. Yet, figures from last year show that in the 18 months since the legislation came into effect, no new prescriptions for full-extract cannabis oil were allowed. Patient access, in general, continues to be abysmally low as well.

As such, patients continue to seek recourse for self-medication either abroad or through the black market. This involves paying high prices and often risking legal consequences. Statistics for 2019 show that about 7.18% or 4.7 million adults in the UK used cannabis in that year. A number in this range indicates an estimated black-market value of £6 billion and a definite gap in the public policy structure.

What does the future hold for the UK’s medicinal cannabis market?

The UK has recently passed a new regulatory legislation called the Medicines and Medical Devices Act 2021.  Among other things, it is aimed at maintaining a high degree of patient access to the best medicines, guaranteeing patient safety, and ensuring British regulators do not stifle global investments in the country’s life sciences industry.

The government has asserted that the Act is a key step towards the country forming its own improved regulatory landscape. Since the speed of regulatory reform in the UK’s medicinal cannabis market has been remarkably slow until now, it is hoped that the recent move might shake up the status quo.

About the same time, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into effect with the objective of easing trade barriers resulting from Brexit. The provisions for medicinal products mention zero tariffs and quotas, provided the rules of origin requirements are fulfilled.  However, on the heels of the Agreement, the UK has imposed another six-month delay – up to January 2022 – on mandatory customs checks on imports from the EU. The Cabinet has cited the disruption caused by COVID-19 and pressure from businesses as the reason for the two such extensions given.

Meanwhile, the Home Office has spoken about seeking the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) on clarifying the extant law on CBD products for the business ease and convenience of legitimate market players. All these factors contribute to an uncertain but evolving market climate.

Around the world, the stigma and the hysteria surrounding the use of cannabis has abated in recent years, with a growing number of international governments reforming their drug laws. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the urgent demand for more holistic health solutions, which is all the more reason to open up the medicinal cannabis sector in the UK.

The timing and relevance of the CMC Summit imbue it with the significance of a turning point. It is likely to be an important opportunity for assessing the current status of research and regulation relating to the medicinal cannabis industry in the country, as well as for negotiating a way forward in a post-Brexit world.