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GW Pharma Makes UK Biggest Medical Cannabis Exporter

UK medical cannabis
Written by Sarah Friedman

When it comes to the topic of legal cannabis, there are a lot of firsts and a lot of records. What country was first to legalize medicinally, what country was first to legalize recreationally, and which country exported the most cannabis oils or produced the most flowers. Apparently, the UK holds one of these records, as the biggest exporter of legal medical cannabis.

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UK and cannabis law

The UK isn’t exactly the most forward-thinking country when it comes to cannabis legalization. In fact, of Westernized countries, it’s one of the furthest behind when it comes to loosening restrictions. Cannabis has been illegal in the UK since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act which made cannabis into 100% contraband. Cannabis is a class B drug, along with barbiturates and amphetamines. Use and possession crimes can incur up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

If caught with smaller amounts, law enforcement are more likely to give a ₤90 on-the-spot fine, or if the offender is lucky, just a warning. Kids under the age of 18 don’t get out of having their parents informed. To make it perfectly clear, the UK has absolutely no decriminalization measures for small amounts of cannabis. When it comes to criminal punishments, they can vary based on several factors, like:

  • How much cannabis the person had
  • Where the person and drugs were found, and what this could imply about the crime
  • The history of the person in question, including prior arrests
  • Any other extenuating factors that are relevant to the case
medical cannabis UK

In light of changing cannabis laws around the world, the UK did re-examine its drug laws in 2019. However, the end result was that the country did not see fit to make any changes. The review was led by Professor Dame Carol Black, who was also charged with leading a follow-up stage of review which started in July of 2020. This part is meant to investigate treatment and recovery services for users, as well as preventative measures.

Cultivation, sale, supply, and trafficking crimes are all illegal in the UK. Personal cultivation can get a person up to five years in prison. Sale and supply of Class B drugs can incur up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. Those working for large-scale operations are more likely to receive extreme sentences. For lesser crimes, much like with possession, different things are assessed in order to come up with a correct penalty.

  • The history of the person in question, including prior incarcerations
  • How much cannabis the offender was caught with
  • What the supply plan was
  • Any other extenuating factors that are relevant to the case

In the UK, there is a Category of Harm attached to drug crimes, which are organized by the quantity of drugs found.

Category 1 – 200+ kilograms of cannabis

Category 2 – 40-200 kilograms of cannabis

Category 3 – 6-40 kilograms of cannabis

Category 4 – 100+ grams of cannabis

Medicinal cannabis was legalized in the UK in 2018, however only three pharmaceutical medicines are available, very few prescriptions for medication are given out, prescriptions are only given out when other standard methods aren’t working, and overall there is almost no access to the system for citizens. This, however, does nothing to slow down or stop the medical cannabis cultivation for export industry, which is doing more than just fine in the UK. More about that next.

Largest cannabis exporters

We know that apart from those with medical prescriptions, cannabis is illegal to buy, sell, or grow. However, this really only applies to personal use. When it comes to a cannabis industry, the UK has absolutely no issue growing cannabis, processing it into medicines that will not be used by citizens of its own country, and then exporting those medicines (or raw materials) out to other places in the world. In fact, not only does it do a lot of this, it does more of this (in some respects) than the rest of the world. So, while the UK has a stick up its backside about letting its own citizens use cannabis, it seems more than happy to produce it for the rest of the world.

medical cannabis

This idea isn’t new either, or specific to the UK. Most countries to open medical cannabis export industries, haven’t been great with protections for local farmers (giving them preference over international investors), or cared about their own people (creating export industries without allowing residents access). This can be seen quite a bit in Africa, where impoverished countries have one-by-one been setting up systems that cut out their own citizens. This isn’t a rule, and countries like Morocco and Malawi have shown more interest in helping their own people. The UK, has not as much. As of 2021, the medicinal cannabis system is barely used in the UK, and the main producer in the country is a large-scale pharmaceutical company.

Before we get into how the UK is the biggest exporter of medical cannabis, let’s look at who else holds records of this kind. It would be incorrect, for example, to say that the UK exports the most cannabis products, or that it exports the most cannabis products whether legal or not. When it comes to these designations, they actually go to Morocco, which as of yet has only been operating an illegal cannabis resins export market. According to BBC Arabic in 2019, Morocco produces 1 million kilos of hash annually, worth approximately €8 billion. In fact, as of right now, Morocco is the #1 supplier to Europe of illegal cannabis, and the #1 global exporter of cannabis resins, exporting out a massive 36,000 tons in 2017, dwarfing a country like Mexico which only exported 5,000 tons in comparison.

Then there’s China, and no one exports more industrial hemp than China. According to NewFrontierData’s Asia-Pacific Hemp Brief: 2018 Industry Overview, China leads the world in cultivation, processing, manufacturing, and exportation of hemp. Just domestic sales in China are estimated to bring in $1.1 billion, which is over 1/3 of the entire global market. It’s hard to get specific information on China as the government is reluctant to release data related to cultivation, production and sales. China did top the list for cannabis oil exports in 2019, exporting 33.4% of all exported cannabis oil, with India coming in second with only 11.1%.

UK largest exporter of medical cannabis

The UK does not export the most cannabis products total in the world, but it does hold the designation of exporting the most legal medical cannabis globally. This does not involve illegal markets, recreational markets, or industrial hemp markets. In 2016, according to UN International Narcotic’s Control Board, the UK produced 95 tons of legal medical cannabis, which made up 44.9% of the global total for the year.

pharmaceutical cannabis

That year, the UK exported 2.1 tons, which accounted for 67.7% of global exported medical cannabis for the year. Just to put a little comparison in…remember when we were talking about Morocco? And how it exports approximately 36,000 tons of resin a year? Really shows the difference in size between a legal regulated medical market, and a black market.

All this makes it sound like the UK is some sort of legal-marijuana producing machine, but in reality, the numbers have a certain relevance. GW Pharmaceutics, a British-based pharmaceutical company, is responsible for much of these exports. GW Pharmaceutics is the company that came out with Epidiolex, a liquid CBD medication that was the underlying cause of the whole court case between France and the EU, when France literally went to court against the entire EU to maintain legal sales of Epidiolex, while illegalizing all natural versions of CBD. Luckily it lost. My personal guess is that GW Pharmaceuticals bankrolled that whole case, but this is just supposition. GW Pharmaceuticals is also responsible for Sativex.

Of course, GW Pharmaceuticals isn’t even that anymore. In early February 2021 it was reported that GW Pharmaceuticals was bought out by Ireland-based Jazz, a rival pharmaceutical company, for $7.2 billion. I suppose if Jazz wanted to move its main production center out of the UK, it could greatly reduce the UK’s medical cannabis outputs. Nothing has been said about doing this, however it does shed some light on why the UK is exporting the most medical cannabis.

Epidiolex, for its part, brought in approximately $132 million in sales in the last reported quarter. To give an idea of how much this can grow, GW’s entire revenue (not just for Epidiolex) for the first quarter of 2019, was $39.2 million. By the third quarter of 2020, that number reached $137.1 million. The first quarter of 2018 saw only $3 million in revenue. GW’s earnings have increased exponentially in just a few years.


The main and only reason that the UK has been exporting such large amounts of legal medical cannabis, is because a large cannabis pharmaceutical company is based out of the UK, and produces one of only a few approved cannabis medicines. Regardless of why the export amount is so high, it still comes back to one point…the UK is exporting tons of medical cannabis, and barely giving its residents any at all. And the only options that medical patients do have, are the pharmaceutical drugs made in labs, while the actual plant (with all its raw medical components) is completely off limits.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.