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UK’s Legalization of Medical Cannabis Sparks Talk of Possible Recreational Laws

Popular support is behind adult-use legalization, but U.K. officials say today’s policy shift is strictly about access to medical cannabis.

Adam Drury

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The United Kingdom announced today a relaxation of its cannabis laws that will allow specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-based products for certain patients. It’s a modest change to the U.K.’s cannabis laws. But it’s one that has already sparked a conversation on the broader legalization of cannabis for adult-use. Recent surveys put support for adult-use legalization at 59 percent. Top officials within the U.K. government, however, are denying that the rescheduling of cannabis-based medical treatments is a step toward full legalization.

U.K. Legalizes Medical Cannabis for “Unmet Clinical Needs”

This summer’s massive public outcry over a pair of high-profile instances of children being denied access to life-saving medical cannabis products has moved the needle on drug policy in the U.K. Alfie and Billy, 13 and 12 respectively, who both suffer from an extreme form of epilepsy, made headlines in July when they lost access to their medication. Both children rely on cannabis oil to reduce the intensity and frequency of their seizures. And although U.K. law had permitted individuals to petition for medical cannabis in extreme cases, Billie and Alfie had no such authorizations. In Alfie’s case, the U.K. Home office refused his parents’ licensing request. Billie had his cannabis oil confiscated when his mother returned to London from Canada, where she had to travel to obtain it legally.

In the immediate wake of the outcry, both children received those special licenses to access their medical cannabis treatments. And the issue prompted home secretary Sajid Javid to initiate a review of the U.K.’s medical cannabis policy. The review returned a number of favorable results. Ultimately, it concluded that medical cannabis had therapeutic and medical benefits and that doctors should be able to prescribe it. In light of the review’s conclusions, Javid confirmed the plan to reschedule medical cannabis in the U.K.

And on November 1, the new rule went into effect. Certain cannabis-based products are now classified “Schedule 2.” In other words, a controlled substance with “potential medical use.” The rescheduling frees up tens of thousands of U.K. doctors to prescribe cannabis. But the U.K. government is still placing major restrictions on access to the drug. For now, only those patients with an “unmet clinical need” will be eligible for cannabis prescriptions.

Who Will Be Eligible to Take and Prescribe Medical Cannabis in the U.K.?

Eligibility for cannabis-based treatments in the U.K. has nothing to do with specific qualifying conditions, as it does in many U.S. states. Rather, doctors will decide whether or not a patient has an “unmet clinical need” that cannabis can meet. Only specialists will be able to write cannabis prescriptions. There are about 80,000 specialists listed on the National Health Service website. They’ll have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis and be able to show that currently licensed medications cannot meet the patient’s clinical need. And many doctors have already stated they likely won’t issue cannabis prescriptions in any case. They say there has been next to no guidance on issuing such prescriptions. Also, policies don’t exist to support doctors if something goes wrong.

Initially, then, patient access will be limited, as will the types of cannabis products patients can legally obtain. Eligible products must fulfill three requirements. Products must be cannabis-or cannabinoid-derived, exclusively for medical purposes and fit for human consumption. And that means the exclusion of flower and most edibles. Instead, patients will be able to access cannabis products in pills, capsules, and oils.

Many questions remain about the specifics of how the rule change will play out on the ground. For now, the change is likely to impact just a small number of U.K. patients. But the U.K. public wants more. And today, they got the first significant sign that drug policy changes are indeed possible. Going forward, that could lead to serious talks about the possibility of adult-use cannabis laws.

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