Producing and selling weed (of a synthetic variety) to the world, while keeping it strictly illegal at home.
A few days ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unanimously recommended approval of an epilepsy medication made with cannabidiol (or CBD), an ingredient found in marijuana. If the agency follows the recommendation, as is expected, the drug would be the first cannabis-derived prescription medicine available in the United States.
The drug, called Epidiolex, is manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company that is licensed by the UK Home Office to conduct research into the medicinal uses of cannabis. Its active ingredient, cannabidiol, also called CBD, is one of the chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant, but it does not contain the properties that get people high.
GW boasts of being the “global leader” in developing synthetic cannabinoid-based medicines. In 1998 the company bought exclusive rights to the entire range of cannabis varieties developed by HortaPharm, a cannabis research and development business in the Netherlands.
News of GW’s stateside coup came just a month after the UN revealed that the UK is the world’s biggest exporter of marijuana for medical purposes. Ninety-five tonnes of marijuana was produced in the UK in 2016 for medicinal and scientific use, accounting for 44.9 per cent of the world total, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) found. The UK also exported 2.1 tonnes of so-called “legal” marijuana in 2016 – roughly 70 per cent of the world’s total, the report stated.
Clearly, this pales in comparison with the output of some of the world’s biggest cannabis trafficking nations, such as Morocco, Mexico, Paraguay, Nigeria and Lebanon.
In the case of Mexico, its traffickers export many, many tonnes of marijuana each year to the U.S. and elsewhere, all of it illegally. Yet some of that marijuana ends up being used as so-called “medical marijuana,” as it’s the only semi-legal way for Americans to buy it. But those pot “exports” never got classified as “medical marijuana,” since until last year medical marijuana didn’t even exist as a product class in Mexico. And the government most definitely did not grant licenses for its production or export.
Nonetheless, news that UK producers have virtually cornered the global “medical marijuana” industry must have come as a big surprise to most British people, since in the UK “medical marijuana” is, to all intents and purposes, illegal to buy or sell. The UK government maintains that the plant has no medical uses, while creating legislative conditions to enable pharmaceuticals to produce synthetic marijuana for sale in other countries.
As a direct result of this policy patients in the UK are either denied access to the drug’s therapeutic benefits or risk prosecution by trying to buy cannabis on the criminal market. Smoking a joint or making cannabis tinctures can land someone in jail for up to five years under current UK drug laws.
Alex, a close friend of mine from the north-west of England, has a three-year old son with a rare genetic condition called Infantile Spasms, which causes him to suffer hundreds of neurologically catastrophic seizures per day. The only medicines available for its treatment on the NHS are extremely strong, with potentially dangerous side effects. Some, such as those in the Benzodiazepine category, are highly addictive. And they are by no means guaranteed to be effective.
There is growing evidence to suggest that increased levels of THC (the psychoactive substance in marijuana) can increase the efficacy of CBD in the treatment of a range of epilepsy types. In the UK the maximum dosage for THC-containing products is currently 0.2%.
“We have been buying products from the U.S. with this level of dosage over the last year and they’ve helped to reduce the symptoms. Instead of suffering up to 300 seizures a day, he only has a few dozen at most,” Alex says.
But even just a few seizures a day is problematic, since each seizure has a detrimental effect on the child’s neurological development. “It’s like rebooting a hard-drive,” my friend says. “Perhaps if he was able to try a product with a higher THC content, we could eliminate the seizures completely.”
Unfortunately, in the EU only Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Spain currently authorise marijuana’s use as a medicine, while a few other states are planning legislation on the issue. They do not include the UK.
Drug policy reform group, Transform, has lambasted the government for helping to turn the UK into a mass producer of “legal” marijuana while “consistently refusing to allow medical cannabis in the UK on the basis that it has ‘no therapeutic value’”. Steve Rolles, the group’s senior policy analyst, said>
“It is scandalous and untenable” for the government to maintain that cannabis has no medical uses, at the same time as licensing the world’s biggest government approved medical cannabis production and export market.”
The government’s hypocrisy does not end there. In February it was revealed that the husband of Victoria Atkins, the Tory MP tasked with regulating drugs in the UK, is growing 45 acres of cannabis under government licence while she argues against drugs regulation in Parliament. Atkins’ husband, Paul Kenward, is the managing director of British Sugar, the sole British producer of sugar from sugar beet, which now has a side business in growing cannabis under contract to GW Pharmaceuticals.
Whether the UK government will grant GW a license to sell Epidiolex, the synthetic 98% cannabidiol (CBD) medicine, time will tell. GW’s other cannabis-derived prescription drug, Sativex, is only available for MS sufferers in the UK. At £375 + VAT per pack (roughly 270 doses), it is beyond the means of most patients. Meanwhile, as the regulatory haze thickens in Whitehall, one thing is becoming clear: government and big pharma have big designs on a long demonised plant whose therapeutic properties are only just coming to light. That could be bad news for both patients and recreational users alike.