England's legalization of medical marijuana has been a predictable process, with at least one minor-sounding — yet very significant — deviation.
On November 1, medical cannabis becomes legal in the United Kingdom. This is a technically true statement. But still, and mostly because this is marijuana… it’s still just sort of.
There will be no flood of pain patients, cancer sufferers, and everyone else for whom medical marijuana can bring relief to dispensaries and clinics. This is because there will be no dispensaries or cannabis-recommending doctor’s clinics, of the kind seen in the United States or in Canada, where medical cannabis, government-approved and lab-tested, is legally available through the mail.
A Patient-driven Process
Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s long-expected order, issued earlier this month following high drama at Heathrow Airport, where Javid’s officers seized cannabis oil belonging to an epileptic boy, reschedules “cannabis-based products for medical use.” Nothing more, and nothing less.
Exactly what those products will be, when they will become available, for whom and how easily — and how expensive — all remains to be seen. All those very important details will be hammered out over the next year, with exact answers to be determined.
That’s all very standard sausage-making, and it will all sound familiar to anyone involved with or following similar processes as they’ve played out recently in Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arkansas, and other U.S. states where medical marijuana has slowly but surely become legally available to those who need it. It will also sound familiar in Canada and Australia, two former British Commonwealth countries that have also moved more quickly.
But there is at least one minor-sounding yet very significant deviation from this otherwise predictable script. According to activists involved with the process, it’s medical-marijuana patients — and not pharmaceutical companies, or entrepreneurs, or would-be entrepreneurs — who are driving the process. The big guys (and girls, but mostly guys) with the big money are trying to get into the meetings with policymakers and members of Parliament — and so far, they’re getting shut out.
Steve Moore is a veteran political campaigner and strategist who briefly led the “Big Society” effort hatched by former Conservative prime minister David Cameron. He now serves on the strategic council of VolteFace, a combination think tank-content platform advocating for a science and reason-based reform of British drug policy (and organized the scene and subsequent media storm following the Home Office’s confiscation of the Canadian cannabis oil brought into the UK by Charlotte Caldwell for the use of her son).
In an interview with Leafly (with this writer, full disclosure), Moore mentioned how many calls he’d been fielding from business-minded types from the U.S. and Canada, suddenly fully aware that the biggest new potential market for their products and their expertise was in the UK — which, with 66 million people, is almost 50 percent larger than Canada, for more than a few months the biggest deal in the global marijuana game leading up to nationwide legalization on October 17. All those entrepreneurs, the founders and the funders, want to be seated at the literal and metaphorical table, when members of the government and Parliament sit down with stakeholders and figure out how to get cannabis to the public. And they’re shut out!
To the big money players, “the answer is, ‘You’re not invited’,” Moore told Leafly. “It’s the patients. There is a desire to make sure that patients get in first before the industry.’”
Avoiding a State-sanctioned Monopoly
To understand how significant this is — beyond a stark procedural departure — consider medical marijuana’s functionality in other jurisdictions that have taken different approaches. It is a literal apples-to-oranges comparison, but for the sake of discussion, let’s look at Florida.
At one-third the population of the United Kingdom, Florida is nonetheless an enormous market for cannabis, with an aging population that includes a significant number of military veterans. There, medical marijuana was approved by voters, but then dictated by lawmakers in consultation with health-department officials. (It should not go unsaid that those health officials work for Gov. Rick Scott, himself a healthcare-industrial complex tycoon).
The result? A ban on marijuana that could be smoked. A ban on home cultivation, forcing patients to go to capitalized companies for access to a plant. So few licensed dispensaries and cultivators that it equated to a state-sanctioned monopoly. A byzantine permitting process that gave preferential treatment to farms that had once grown citrus fruits.
Some of these restrictions have been overturned by the courts, but the fact that the courts had to be involved at all should be proof enough that the laws were imperfect and unworkable. It should surprise nobody that the imperfections were put there by someone other than the patients for whom the laws were intended.
The UK may yet change course and make the wrong moves. They would do so if they listened to pain doctors in charge of prescribing pharmaceutical alternatives to cannabis, which — according to the literature, is effective for pain. Earlier this month, doctors “from almost every [pain] specialist clinic in the country” sent a letter to the London Times claiming that legalizing medical cannabis will lead to an “opiate-style crisis of addiction and crime.”
In their letter, the doctors say that there is “little evidence [cannabis] works for chronic pain,” and that making marijuana available via a doctor’s approval rather than the black market “puts patients at the risk of mental health problems.” It is safe to say that not a single medical cannabis patient was consulted in the crafting of that letter. But it’s also easy to see what medical marijuana access would look like in the United Kingdom if current patients weren’t consulted. It would look like what they currently “enjoy” today. It would be bad. And so far, that’s not the route the UK is headed.