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Deregulating cannabis gives UK opportunity after Covid-19 

Lawyer from London law firm Bishop & Sewell, Eleanor Furlong, says the deregulation of cannabis in the UK is a case of ‘when, not if’. 

Stephanie Price

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Deregulating cannabis gives UK opportunity after Covid-19 

The deregulation of cannabis gives the UK the opportunity to ‘Build Back Greener’ following the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a lawyer specialising in legal cannabis.

Lawyer from London law firm Bishop & Sewell, Eleanor Furlong, specialising in the legal cannabis sector, says the deregulation of cannabis in the UK is a case of ‘when, not if’, and that it provides the UK with the ideal opportunity to take advantage of lucrative new markets following Covid-19. 

Creating jobs and saving costs

According to the International Narcotics Control Board’s (INCB) annual report, the UK is estimated to be the world’s largest producer and exporter of legal cannabis products – growing around 320 tonnes in 2019. 

The UK’s medicinal cannabis industry could create around 100,000 new jobs and be worth £2bn if regulation around the sector is relaxed, and legalisation could save an estimated £890m a year in reduced spending by police, prisons, courts and the NHS, according to a recent report by Maple Tree. 

Furlong said: “Despite medicinal cannabis use, as prescribed by a doctor, being made legal in the UK three years ago, only a handful of people have received NHS prescriptions for the treatment to date.

“However, stories such as that of Thomas Braun, the boy who hand-delivered a letter to the prime minister asking for help in getting a medical cannabis prescription for his severely epileptic brother, are throwing a national spotlight on the debates around relegislating on cannabis.

“Research shows that cannabis and cannabis-derived products have a huge range of medical uses, with treatments for chronic pain, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, depression, movement disorders, eating disorders, cancer and AIDs patients and the list goes on.

“Relegislating cannabis also offers potentially significant savings to the NHS in prescription costs, whilst simultaneously reducing demand on more expensive and limited NHS resources. In addition, cannabis has the potential to boost both NHS funding through raising billions in revenue for the treasury, and the wider economy through the establishment of new cannabis sub-sectors within our existing industries; from farming to sustainable fashion.”

Regulatory reform

Recreational use of cannabis is legal in 14 US States, with overall legal sales expected to triple over the next three years to more than US$30bn.

Furlong continued: “The economic benefit of deregulation is too compelling for the Government to ignore; the market is highly profitable and growing rapidly, presenting an ideal opportunity for the UK to capitalise on its role as a global leader in cannabis cultivation and export.

“In the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic, political opportunity arises as the treasury explores options for balancing the books and raising funds. Meanwhile, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has set up an independent commission to review the benefits of legalising cannabis.”

London’s listed cannabis sector has also doubled in size this year after the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) approved the admission of cannabis-related businesses to the London Stock Exchange.

“The deregulation of cannabis will likely be made in phases, following the first steps being taken in medicinal cannabis. Subsequently attention should turn to the relaxation of farming regulations around hemp and CBD, although a pilot in London to create a legal cannabis market seems more likely and could be a catalyst for deregulation at a much faster pace,” added Furlong.

“Cannabis has been legal in other countries for some time, so there is much data available for the Government to consider. The electorate’s view will also count, and recent surveys in London have shown support for deregulation running at around 60%.

“Key to this will be to move the consumption method away from smoking to healthier alternatives like edibles and vaping, and position cannabis products as an alternative to alcohol. CBD oils are already de-regulated and it’s only a matter of time before hemp and medical marijuana follow.

“The legalisation of recreational cannabis use may take more time due to the legal and ethical challenges posed, such as whether the benefits of deregulation outweigh potential health and social costs, the likely rate of addiction and its impact, and practical issues such as clarifying a safe THC blood levels for driving when considering both regular and irregular cannabis users.

“Nevertheless, the wave for reform is building, and social and cultural attitudes are also shifting into place. The financial benefits of legalising cannabis may be what tips the balance, if the Government decides to reap the rewards of this lucrative nascent market.”

Politics & policy

United Nations calls for worldwide cannabis advertising ban

Global health experts want a ‘comprehensive’ ban on promotion akin to the tobacco industry.

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The United Nations has called for a worldwide ban on the advertising of cannabis products.

In a report which could have serious ramifications for the industry, health experts have demanded cannabis products to be treated in much the same way as tobacco.

The World Drug Report 2021 will make for grim reading for those in the industry pushing to have restrictions on promotion eased as the industry expands.

As well as a call for a ‘comprehensive’ ad ban, the report calls for public awareness campaigns from public bodies on recreational and medical cannabis use, as well as for the ‘so-called wellness industry’.

The influential annual report analyses trends in drug use – both legal and illegal – and makes a number of policy recommendations for participating nations.

The report warns THC levels in cannabis product have ‘quadrupled in strength in the United States of America and have doubled in Europe in the last two decades’.

Despite this, the ‘percentage of adolescents perceiving cannabis as harmful has decreased by as much as 40 per cent during the same period’.

In a key finding, the report concludes: “A comprehensive ban on advertising, promoting and sponsoring cannabis would ensure that public health interests prevail over business interests.

“Such a ban would need to apply across all jurisdictions. The measures could work in a way similar to the provisions of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

“More investment is needed for research into the harm that the non-medical use of cannabis poses to health and to better define the range of health conditions for which cannabis products may be an effective treatment.”

Parallel cannabis industries are growing in different parts of the world, covering medical and recreational use of products containing THC and psychoactive consumer products like CBD.

The UN has called for better awareness of all three markets in order to reduce drugs-related harm.

The report finds: “Awareness-raising and communication efforts that disseminate scientific information without stigmatising people who use drugs or people with drug use disorders can help to avoid misperceptions.

“Messages must be fact-based and a clear distinction must be made among the effective medical uses of cannabis products for some ailments, the use of cannabis products such as CBD in the so-called wellness industry and the consequences of the non-medical use of cannabis.”

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Cannabis Trade Association enters partnership to help navigate regulations

Oxfordshire County Council officials will help the group navigate fast-changing rules.

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The Cannabis Trade Association has struck up a deal with a local authority to help it navigate regulations.

The trade group has entered into a legally recognised relationship with Oxforshire County Council.

It means the CTA will benefit from ongoing compliance advice from the council’s trading standards arm in a fast-changing regulatory environment.

The relationship is known as a ‘primary authority partnership’ and is an established legal process whereby organisations team up with standards experts to ensure standards are being met.

It comes in the context of the role out of controversial novel foods regulations on the CBD market and a consultation over THC levels in hemp.

With the novel foods process far from over and further regulation likely to follow in the medium-term, the deal will allow the CTA to offer the best advice to its members.

The CTA say it ‘will will provide ongoing tailored and impartial advice on matters which are of concern and helping  businesses to plan by providing assured advice via a single point of contact on the continuing changes to the regulatory landscape’.

As the ‘primary authority’, Oxfordshire County Council will also act as a broker if another trading standards body in a different local authority area takes enforcement action.

Under the law, any other local authority must first liaise with the primary authority and, if the business has followed advice it was issued with under the agreements, it’s unlikely any further action would be taken.

Primary authority partnerships could increasingly be used by UK-based cannabis authorities to help stay ahead of a fluid and patchy regulatory system.

While standards are set at the national level, there is no one body overseeing enforcement.

Local authorities are responsible for applying their rules in their own area which can potentially lead to inconsistent approach depending on where a company is operating.

Getting compliance with new regulations from the outset has never been more important for the industry in light of the novel foods process for CBD products.

As previously reported, there is no appeals process built into the application procedure, meaning the onus is on companies to get their submissions right first time.

The expensive and slow process has seen just 42 products go through to the next stage of authorisation and over half of the 800+ applications originally submitted have already been turned down.

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Drug reform advocates must change to succeed, experts warn

A conversation between three leading drug policy experts has called for a new approach.

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The pro-drug reform lobby must accept it has failed and change to push its agenda ahead, leading experts have warned.

Speaking at a Global Cannabis Intelligence event about the state of advocacy in the UK, three leading policy advocates set out how they think greater access can be achieved.

The discussion comes week after the 50-year anniversary of the passage of the The Misuse of Drugs Act.

Despite evidence the law has failed to reduced drug-related harm and several attempts to change it, the act still defines the UK’s approach to drugs.

Paul North, director at advocacy group Volteface, said campaigners need to be less ideological if it wants to avoid another 50 years of failure.

He said ‘activism is very limited because it relies on a central message and is tied to an ideology’ and that  ‘if someone can predict your position, you probably aren’t going to get people to agree with you’.

There has been an explosion of cannabis activism in the US in recent years.

Mr North added: “Extinction Rebellion is a good example of this – nearly everyone thinks climate change is bad but a lot of people don’t like them because they are so tied to an ideology, it creates a ‘them and us’ scenario.

“When a subject is moral like drug policy, that becomes a problem.”

He said activism has a role but advocates of drug reform must harness public relations effectively and be more inclusive.

North continued: “Drug reform debate must move beyond activism because, if we’re totally honest, drug reform [in the UK] in the past 50 years has been fairly abysmal, not a great deal has happened…the approach I take to that is, rather than being angrier and louder, we need to step back and as what we can do differently.”

He called on the drug reform movement to ‘be brave and do things a little differently’, adding: “When I came into this space I envisioned it being friendly and positive but it’s actually very turbulent and cliquey.

“The challenge is if you want to say something else or start a new narrative, it gets quite lively.”

His sentiments were echoed by David Badcock, CEO of Drug Science, who said an evidence-based approach was far more likely to make inroads with politicians and regulators.

He said: “It’s no good just attacking the whole time and telling people they are wrong and misinformed…it’s not something that makes a difference and changes thing.

“When you attack policymakers, they just dig in deeper. What we try and do is try and engage positively with policymakers who can make a difference.”

Amber Moore, senior researcher at the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, said: “The most important thing is talking to people who aren’t fully convinced and understand what their concerns are…that’s such an important part of it.

“It’s not always easy but I think the best way to do it is just listen to people.”

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