A new centre-left government and the potential for ‘change’ in the UK cannabis landscape

Cannabis Health
Tue, Jul 9
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The UK General Election has seen the Labour Party return to power after 14 years with a stonking majority of over 170 seats.

During the years when it was out of office Labour had shifted markedly to the left under socialist Jeremy Corbyn. And, if he had been elected there was a fair chance he would have taken the UK down a similar path to Germany.

However, with centrist, former Labour premier Tony Blair pulling the strings of the new Prime Minister Sir Kier Starmer this subsequent rightward shift looks set to leave little room for UK drugs policy reform.

Sir Kier has said he has ‘no intention’ of changing drug laws in the country, adding: “Other countries will take different approaches they traditionally have, but our approach is settled and not really a subject of great debate even within the Labour Party.”

Nevertheless, with over 200 of Labour’s 411 MPs in Parliament debutants there will be many back-benchers agitating for change.

Two of the parties who support UK drug reform have increased their presence in parliament with the Lib Dems now having 71 seats up from eight and the Greens up from one to four.

Senior Labour politicians such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan are keen to see reform of the cannabis laws. He has called for decriminalisation in the capital and established the London Drugs Commission.

And, after a visit to Canada in 2019 the new UK foreign Secretary David Lammy backed legalisation.

Mike Morgan-Giles, CEO of the UK Cannabis Industry Council (CIC), says this substantial change in the make-up of Parliament is an opportunity to identify like-minded fellow travellers amongst the new intake of MPs.

The industry currently has direct contact with sitting MPs through the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Hemp and CBD, and the CIC has established links with a number of MPs.

“The new government will want to get on top of its core priorities we will be looking to speak to the new ministerial team to look for opportunities to discuss measures which can help the sector grow,” he said.

He believes the cannabis industry can help the Government tackle its core priorities which include building more houses, slashing NHS waiting lists and ‘tackling climate change’.

“The government is inheriting bulging NHS waiting lists and one way to tackle this is through medical cannabis. Many people are suffering from chronic pain and if the industry can demonstrate how medical cannabis can bring down waiting lists…this is a discussion they may well listen to.

“With the housing industry, hemp can play a key role in delivering new houses, whilst decarbonising developments and ‘tackling climate change’.”

In 2018, the UK government legislated for the prescribing of medical cannabis on the National Health Service (NHS) after the plight of epileptic youngster Alfie Dingley came to the fore.

But, the NHS bureaucracy soon sucked the energy out of this by deferring to outdated guidelines on medical trials and established clinical hierarchies, which has limited prescriptions to just five individuals.

Meanwhile, after the NHS announced plans to press ahead with at least two trials into the efficacy of medical cannabis there has yet to be any progress.

The main stumbling blocks are NHS guidelines weighted against whole-plant, extracts in deference to single molecule treatments.

Mr Morgan Giles added: “Cannabis trials challenge their methodology. For the NHS it’s like putting a round peg in a square hole. They prefer isolated products, but this doesn’t address the wider issue; the benefits of the whole plant and the entourage effect.

“The established clinical trial system does not have an answer to that. It is therefore vital that the the industry pushes back against these NICE guidelines. We need to stress that these are merely guidelines, they are not rules, and the authorities should be open minded.”

One of the UK’s leading medical cannabis experts is Michael Barnes, Honorary Professor Neurological Rehabilitation at Newcastle University and Honorary President, of the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society.

He took up this point telling Business of Cannabis: “Will much change now we have Labour in power? I really hope so. There is so much more that the government can do. Two things stand out.

“First, allow GPs to initiate prescription of cannabis. That would really help the availability and pave the way for better access through the NHS.

“Second, set up a NHS fund to pay for the children with resistant epilepsy – at least those already prescribed and preferably the others who would benefit but have not been able to afford a private prescription.

“Some children prescribed through the NHS may stimulate some action from other consultants who want to prescribe but are prevented from doing so by their Trust or their peer body.

“The new government cannot influence the intransigent stupidity of some bodies like the British Paediatric Neurology Association but let’s hope that some Government changes will stimulate the prescription on the NHS of a valuable medicine that should be free to those who need it. Am I hopeful? Yes – not expecting major change but forever hopeful.”

As a result of the current UK impasse private medical patient numbers are expected to hit 60,000 by the end of the year.

The CIC say this is a situation which needs immediate attention and it hopes it may make some progress using economic arguments.

“We will be presenting a case on the economics with York University and Drug Science and creating a new model to show the positive economic impact to NHS and economy, if cannabis is prescribed for chronic pain on the NHS. The results are very positive and will be published soon.”

At a time when the UK’s national debt, at £2.7 trillion, is almost the same as its annual GDP its fiscal hands are ties; a key economic reality acknowledged by the incoming Government.

Labour has promised not to tamper with the main taxes such as income tax and VAT but is believed to be looking at further stealth and wealth taxes.

Supporting the cannabis industry would help boost the Chancellor’s coffers to the tune of almost £2bn, claims Mamedica, a UK private clinic.

Its research shows that 54% of the population support decriminalisation and the illicit cannabis market in the UK is now valued over £3bn, supplying 1.8m people.

The last Labour government – the Blair premiership between 1997 and 2010 – flip-flopped on cannabis.

We initially saw saw a liberalisation, with cannabis rescheduled from Schedule B to C in 2001, with reduced penalties for possession, but by 2009 it was back to Class B in 2009, highlights Stephen Oliver, Co-Director of The Canna Consultants.

“To win the election Labour needed the support of prohibitionists…but, Labour will not legalise cannabis for recreational use, they will instead decriminalise its use by stealth:  we will see a reduction in investment in medical cannabis and the black market grow.

“Neither party has the stomach or desire for a proper discussion and assessment of a cogent drugs policy and the ‘same old, same old’ will continue, with no coherent approach from police forces meaning that the medical cannabis lottery of acceptance/prosecution will continue – in short, nothing will change.”

As for the CBD industry, the administrative Government machine is currently considering new hemp licensing and CBD rules.

“In fact, what we will see in the short term are the announcements from the Home Office which will enable a CBD industry to function with permissible contaminant THC levels – but – despite the fact we can already hear the usual suspects claiming their new alliances and lobbying of Labour MPs are to be celebrated that will be an inherited Tory policy,” added Mr Oliver.

While the new Government has a majority as wide as the ocean its share of the vote, at around 10 million, is no more than that it secured at the last election under Corbyn, suggesting its support is no deeper than a Saharan rain puddle.

This lack of an overwhelming mandate may allow its backbenchers licenceto roam more freely and agitate for reform.

Labour’s winning election slogan was simplified to one word ‘Change’, however, it’s highly unlikely we will see any such movement in the UK cannabis landscape over the next few years.