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How Difficult Is It to Get Medical Cannabis in the UK?

uk medical cannabis
Written by Joseph Mcqueen

The United Kingdom – made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – has not been leading the charge for progressive cannabis laws over the recent years. In fact, it has been left rather tragically behind by the likes of the USA, Canada, Jamaica and the majority of Europe. The UK has yet to legalize cannabis in its entirety, whereas the likes of Luxembourg and Malta have, with Germany looking like they will follow soon. However, in 2018, the UK decided to legalize the use of medical cannabis. Whilst people thought this would be the start of something special, it still seems difficult to find a reasonably priced and easily accessible cannabis prescription. But in recent news, has this changed?

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UK & Cannabis History

The UK hasn’t had the most exciting history with cannabis. It has been a classified drug since 1928, and was made a stricter class B drug in 1971 due to increased recreational use of it. For context, the UK divides its drugs into classes A, B and C. Each class will determine how strictly the user is dealt with. Here’s how it works:

Class A

“The Strictest”

Drugs Include: crack cocaine, crystal meth, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, magic mushrooms.

Prosecutions: Up to 7 years in prison for possession or up to life in prison for supplying or producing. Also can be up to an unlimited fine. 

Class B

“The Middle”

Drugs Include: amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis, codeine, ketamine, ritalin, synthetic cannabinoids

Prosecutions: Up to 5 years in prison for possession or up to 14 years in prison for supplying or producing. Also can be up to an unlimited fine. 

Class C

“The Bottom”

Drugs Include: anabolic steroids, diazepam, GHB, GBL, khat, piperazines (BZP).

Prosecutions: Up to 2 years in prison for possession or up to 14 years in prison for supplying or producing. Also can be up to an unlimited fine. 

The issue with cannabis and the UK begins here. Cannabis is considered by the major figures in the establishment as a problem drug. A gateway drug. As you can see, cannabis is treated as harshly in the UK as ketamine and amphetamines. However, there was a short period of time where it wasn’t a class B. DPP law writes:

“Cannabis has not always been a class B drug, from 2004 to 2009 it was downgraded to a class C drug – which are commonly seen as less harmful substances to the human body. The change happened in January 2004, after the harshness of Class C penalties for production and distribution was increased.”

However, after 2009, Gordon Brown retracted this decision and returned cannabis to its previous status. It wasn’t until 2018 that anything promising happened regarding the world of weed. 

Medical Cannabis 

In 2018, the UK legalized medical cannabis. It joined a wave of other nations and American states that also felt it necessary. The overwhelming statistics highlighting the medical benefits of cannabis on many mental and physical issues could no longer be ignored. One of the pivotal stories was Billy Caldwell. A young boy who suffered from severe epilepsy, sometimes having over 100 fits a day. His mother would travel to Canada frequently to pick up cannabis oil, which would radically reduce the number of his fits. However, on a specific occasion, she returned home to the UK and the medication was confiscated. After some scary, death threatening nights for Billy, without his medication, the government decided to let him use it. Shortly after, medical cannabis was legalized. 

The issue is, up until recently, only around 80 people were known to be benefiting from this change of law. This is because the only way to access a prescription to medical cannabis is through private means – the NHS does not offer it for free. There was a time when prescriptions would cost around 50,000 a year and, as a result, the majority of people continued finding their cannabis illegally. However, this may be about to change, as a recent report has stated that there are around 9000 active cannabis patients in the UK. Grow Pharama, the largest distributor of cannabis in the UK, says:

“There are probably 8,000 or 9,000 active cannabis patients in the UK, coming back every month for a prescription… When I started in this industry in the UK two-and-a-half years ago, there were only 80 patients With each patient paying £150 to £200 a month for their cannabis prescriptions, it is now ‘a significant market’ worth about £20 million a year”

This may sound promising, and as a trajectory, it is. But, a YouGov poll recently stated that around 1.4 million brits use cannabis to self-medicate. So with only 9000 people gaining access, where does that leave the rest of those people? And, as importantly, why is it so difficult to get a cannabis prescription?

How To Get A UK Cannabis Prescription

Whilst most medications are, requiring a cannabis prescription is not available through the National Health Service. In my opinion, this is for one of two reasons. 1: The UK government wants to earn money from it. 2: they don’t quite trust the drug enough to give it out easily. The NHS writes:

“The law requires that these products be supplied under either the prescription or direction of a clinician on the General Medical Council’s Specialist Register. It is important to ensure that clinical specialists with the appropriate expertise are able to make treatment decisions in their patient’s best interest”

Whilst this sounds legitimate, in practice this has made it very hard for people to access cannabis legally. For many people, the medication is needed right-away, and they cannot wait the time it takes for the prescription to be accepted. Nonetheless, if people are to begin the journey of a legal prescription, here are the steps to doing it:

Step 1: GP Confirmation

Before you start looking for a private clinic, you’ll first need medical confirmation from your doctor that you have a suitable condition for requiring medical cannabis. You’ll need a copy of your Summary Care Record. 

Step 2: Find A Private Clinic 

Finding a clinic that prescribes medical cannabis isn’t difficult, but it is hard to know which places to trust and to know which places are reasonably priced. A consultation can cost from £50 to £200. There are many compiled lists available to look through. 

Step 3: Go To An Appointment

The doctor will look through your records and may ask you some questions about why other medication hasn’t helped for your condition. They may also ask you to explain why cannabis does in fact work instead. It may take a few days before you find out whether you are eligible. 

Step 4: Outcome

If you are successful, your specialist doctor will write to you and suggest some pharmacies to go to for your prescription. This is another point where you may want to compare prices, to ensure this isn’t going to cost you much more than a dealer down the road (although, on many occasions it might). Leafie writes:

“The lowest price is £5 per gram of dried cannabis flower. By joining the T21 scheme the costs are subsidised for approved products and capped at £150 per product per month, however, to benefit from these reduced prices patients need to agree to have certain data collected as part of the ongoing study.”

This is cheaper than it was but, admittedly, it doesn’t always work for people from low income families. Nonetheless, after you get your prescription, which can again take a few days, you will have a follow up consultation with the doctor after a month to check up on how it’s going. 

Final thoughts

These 4 steps may not seem like a lot, but for many people needing cannabis prescriptions, it is quite an ordeal. It can take days, potentially weeks, to get a legal cannabis prescription in the UK. However, it only takes an hour or two to ring your dealer and buy some that way. Plus, it can be cheaper. Whilst I do believe it’s important that people are given the specific type of weed that suits their condition, I also think that it’s impossible to expect the majority of people to go through the arduous process that the UK government wants them to. It may be slightly better than it was but, really, it’s time to begin the process of legalizing cannabis and creating a properly accessible market. The Independent writes:

“Voters know the system isn’t working. A majority of Britons are now in favour of legalising cannabis. The illicit market is estimated to be worth £2bn a year – most of which currently goes to gangs. Meanwhile, users are criminalised and given life-changing criminal records, and offences felt disproportionately by ethnic minorities.”

So come on Briton, it’s time to make a genuinely progressive move.

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About the author

Joseph Mcqueen

Joseph is a cannabis journalist in the UK. His search and love for the truth in the cannabis industry is what drives him to write.