The British cannabis pharmaceutical company takes home an award that demonstrates how important cannabis has been to the British economy for over 20 years—but also how much it so far has been reserved, as an industry, and as a drug, for the elite
The company, which is one of the oldest medical cannabis companies on the planet, only got its license to operate (in the UK) at the turn of this century. For a long time, it was the only viable (legal) cannabis entity in the country.
It came into existence in a rather unique way. Rather than going head-to-head with other well-funded competitors in some US state auction while facing down the DEA or buying out a patient collective or two in Canada, the process was a bit simpler. The founders, Cambridge grads, were given a license by the Home Office.
However, for most of its existence, the company produced products not for domestic consumption, but rather for export. Indeed, GW Pharma has sold its products globally, placing the UK in the position of being the country that exported the most medical cannabis in the world (even over the Netherlands and Canada) as of the last decade.
This is actually nothing new in the British treatment of cannabis. The British East India Company even monopolized the flow of both tea and cannabis between China and India at one point.
Beyond historical revisionism, there is much to commend GW Pharma—if not such an august recognition. The company’s medical products are whole-plant based and work—on label—for alleviating the symptoms of MS and epilepsy. Off-label, Sativex works well on chronic pain as well as other conditions higher THC meds are given for (from Crohn’s Disease to PTSD).
No matter the ground-breaking nature of their products, however, if not the admission by the diplomatic face of the British people that cannabis as medicine has great efficacy, the politics behind all this still smell a little dank.
Here are a few reasons why.
Cannabis Reform has Still Not Really Come in the UK
If there were ever a country where reform has only benefited the few when it comes to cannabis, the UK’s support of GW Pharmaceuticals while banning everyone else, if not further reform, would be the poster child for the same. Namely, at a time when the company was making profits from overseas sales (which also flowed directly into the bank account of the former prime minister’s husband), the vast majority of British patients have had to suffer—either without medication or in fear of prosecution.
Beyond this, there are other forces at play which are far more political than science-driven—and always have been. The UK is currently in the midst of beginning to formalize its CBD business, but the medical discussion has so far, still been put on the back burner. Namely, even though the NHS now allows, technically, cannabis patients to obtain GW Pharmaceuticals products domestically, obtaining them is unbelievably difficult, still.
Beyond this, British regulatory authorities (NICE) have ruled out the use of cannabinoids for chronic pain (the number-one symptom for which cannabis is prescribed to treat in Germany and for which it is most widely used in places like Canada and the United States).
For all the trumpeting about the superiority of British, science-based business, there is still an awful lot of ground left on the table.
For starters, British patients have to actually register for an ID card so they don’t end up arrested or have their medical cannabis confiscated. And a lot of patients and their families still have to import other kinds of cannabinoid medicines if GW Pharma’s products don’t work—or don’t work as well as other alternatives.
The Times they are a’ Changing
Granted, as Leonard Cohen famously sang, Everybody Knows that the dice are loaded, but this war is far from over.
Over the past few years, as medical cannabis reform has begun to find its footing in the UK, other firms have begun to establish themselves in the discussion. This includes the cannabis development now afoot on at least several of the Channel Islands as well as several cultivations on the mainland. By the end of the year, there will be at least one other fully EU GMP-certified extractor in the UK.
Further, the monopoly that GW Pharma has tried to create for itself domestically, has also been broken by political pressure—which came not from “the industry” but rather desperate parents trying to save their children. Imports from Holland and Canada, particularly for otherwise-drug-resistant childhood epilepsy patients, have not stopped, no matter how difficult post Brexit and Pandemic.
Beyond medical reform, it is also clear that Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is on a cannabis reform crusade that might go somewhere this time.
GW Pharmaceuticals in other words, may have just taken home a prestigious prize—and established itself as a global cannabis player. But reform is bubbling now around and beyond them, and often, grounded far from the prestige of Oxbridge. If not far more focussed on the real prize—namely bringing full and final comprehensive cannabis reform to the British Isles, as well as normalizing the industry.
After all, if cannabis reform, generally, in the form of a license, can be so easily obtained, perhaps there is something to be said for democratizing the process—even if slightly—for those who now follow afterward.