Inside The UK’s Legal Cannabis Programme

What does Britain produce more of than any other country in the world? Cricket bats? Pies? Reality TV? Angry people?

We are very good at angry people. Take former BBC producer Fergus Beeley for example, who was once definitely the angriest man alive when he screamed “PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE CAR AND PREPARE TO DIE!” at a family of four on a lay-by just off the M27. Take also, the absolutely furious meat slinging Lidl worker who was recently filmed chasing a shoplifter down the street, beating him with a leg of pork. Wide-eyed. Beetroot faced. British.

But now, apparently, the UK is also the largest producer and exporter of medicinal cannabis in the world. Mad right? According to a report from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) the United Kingdom produced over 95 tons of the substance in 2016 as well as exporting 67.7% of total global exports.

That’s an enormous amount of cannabis. 95 tons is nearly as heavy as a Boeing 757, which weighs around 100 tons prior to fuelling. The next largest producers of the drug were Canada (80 tons) and Portugal (21 tons). (Neither quite so enormous).

But can these figures possibly be accurate? To find out, we reached out to the INCB, the organisation behind the report. Ms Beate Hammond works for the Secretariat of the INCB (an administrative entity of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) and spoke of her role and the study more generally.

“With regards to reports like this, I review the data as it comes in. Governments which are party to the 61 convention, in this case, have to submit information at regular intervals on the uses of narcotic drugs for medical and scientific purposes. The publication you read is the result of these efforts”

There’s a glaring absence, however. Data on the USA’s production and exportation in 2016 is missing. These figures would likely dwarf the UK’s efforts. When pressed on this, Ms Hammond responded, “I don’t think I could give a comment on that which would be fully explanatory of what’s going on. It’s a complicated issue”.

“To report this data in a systematic fashion to the INCB is a very new area. It’s also a new area for the governments dealing with it and for the INCB because cannabis has never been used medically to such an extent as we see it now. I wouldn’t place so much emphasis on the data because it is not 100% complete”.

Of the 95 tons Britain supposedly produces, only 2.1 are exported. As medicinal cannabis products are not widely available in the UK, that leaves a rather hefty 92.9 tons unaccounted for. Ms Hammond, however, says that the data is “not only double checked but triple and quadruple checked” but evidently, something is awry here.

“I would need to check on that” Ms Hammond explains, “It’s very strange. Most of the production would be exported because the UK doesn’t have a medical cannabis program. I cannot give you any explanation at this point because also, the level of stocks are very high at 93 tons. I need to look into that with specialists working on this data”.

Photo: Shane Rounce

The only way to find out more was to contact the big dogs on the UK’s legal cannabis scene, GW Pharmaceuticals. They grow so much cannabis that when Vice President Stephen D. Schultz tried to explain, he forgot to use words properly for a bit; “Basically Patrick we grow a lot of cannabis in this country, you know, dramatically a large number of cannabis”.

Still, as the Vice President of a very large medicinal marijuana company, Schultz clearly knows his high-grade from his ‘mersh’. So how much of the reported 95 tons the UK produced in 2016 were GW Pharmaceuticals responsible for? “We make a lot but we don’t provide exact details. We’re a pharmaceutical company so we grow a lot of plants in England and in various locations, the majority of which are rich in CBD which is the primary molecule in our product Epidiolex.” Epidiolex is an oral cannabidiol formulation that GW are currently testing, aimed at sufferers of treatment-resistant epilepsy.

“We have our own formulation facilities in England, they’re quite large and quite sophisticated. The plants are harvested, they’re dried, they’re milled, the milled material is processed in a way where we extract, again in a very sophisticated process, what we need out of the plant for the medicine itself and then, you know, it’s packaged, bottled, whatever the case might be and shipped to the location of demand”.

Photo: Atomazul

Real nice. Schultz couldn’t shed light on the missing 93 tons though, nor was he able to name me a single other pharmaceutical company in the UK that produces legal cannabis. This needed to be taken higher, right to the very top, aka Her Majesty’s government. We contacted the Home Office to see if they had any information on the matter. “We do not have a publicly available list of the companies that have licenses to grow cannabis for medicinal purpose in the UK”. Well. That’s that. They were able to comment, however, on the report from the INCB:

“The UK does not produce or export cannabis in its raw form for medicinal use as the report suggests” they claimed, but is instead “cultivated” and has its cannabinoids extracted to make “cannabis-based medicine such as Sativex and Epidiolex”.

So, the headline “The UK is the largest producer of medical marijuana in the world” while an attention grabber, is not strictly true. What’s more, we were told “not to place so much emphasis on” the data by the very organisation who collected it. This isn’t exactly reassuring. Perhaps the next set of figures from the INCB will shed light on their claim about the UK, but for now at least, the evidence to back it up is so thin you could roll it up and smoke it.


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