Cannabis and hemp in the UK – Health Europa

Cannabis and hemp in the UK
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Tim Henley, Director of the Cannabis Trades Association, speaks with MCN Quarterly about hemp and cannabis regulation, policy, and healthcare in the UK.

The Cannabis Trades Association (CTA) works with industry stakeholders and national authorities to ensure that the UK’s cannabinoid and hemp sectors are safe, reliable and well-regulated.

CTA Director Tim Henley speaks with MCN Quarterly about cannabis policy, Novel Foods regulation and the impacts of COVID-19 and Brexit on the nascent cannabis industry.

What is the legal status of hemp and its derivatives in the UK?

Under the Home Office’s hemp licensing scheme, you cannot produce hemp-based CBD in the UK because you cannot use the flower to produce it, so you have to import the raw materials from continental Europe – which essentially is offshoring jobs into, primarily, Eastern Europe.

Within medical cannabis there is a differentiation between wellness-based products and medical grade products. You can only really extract large quantities of CBD from hemp, but the UK restricts all processing of hemp to its leaves and stalks – so the UK has basically cut off the most profitable part of the plant, the flower, which can only be used for industrial applications such as packaging or bedding for animals: that is a real hindrance to the industry here. While currently you can get a licence from the Home Office to grow hemp, you cannot process it; you have to leave the plant itself to rot away on the field.

What role does the CTA play in the UK’s cannabis and hemp industry?

I was an original director when the CTA first started in 2016, as the CBD industry just started to take off. My nephew started a PhD looking at CBD and epilepsy, which was sponsored by GW Pharma: that was the catalyst for me to look into CBD, which initially I knew nothing about. It was available in the USA, so I started importing it. As the market started to grow, Google and PayPal began to say: we don’t want anything to do with this because it is federally illegal; and different states have different regulatory regimes.

There has always been a nuanced dance between different regulatory regimes. In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said: you can’t sell this if you’re going to make medical claims – which everybody was, saying CBD helps with this or that – if you’re claiming it’s a medicine, we will regulate it as a medicine. The CTA formed as a trade body and agreed to set guidelines for the industry, filtering back the regulatory regimes that the MHRA wanted. We advocated back then for a 200 milligrams per day limit on CBD, which is the same kind of system as for, for instance, vitamin C: you can buy vitamin C as a wellness product or you can get a prescription, depending upon the amount you need. The CTA was established to move this forward.

Is industry self-regulation necessary to establish high quality standards and shore up consumer safety?

If you buy something off the shelf and the CBD content is not what it claims on the label, that’s a Trading Standards issue. You can’t claim anything has something that’s not in it: that’s illegal. The issue for the cannabinoid industry in general is to set a framework that allows for the industry to grow from entrepreneurship to development, to outline a regulatory regime and work with the regulators to actually move this forward.

Cannabis goes across different regulatory departments. The CTA is trying to create an option moving forward like they have in Germany and in Denmark, a centralised department in government for cannabis. I believe in a whole cannabis economy ranging from industrial processes to cannabinoid therapy and medical cannabis; the way that you regulate that range of issues must be in consensus with the industry moving forward.

The current issues around Novel Foods applications effectively started with the EU saying: hold on, you’re taking the very essence of what has been a natural plant and distilling it down to something that has never been in the food chain before. You created 99% pure CBD as an isolate – has that been a natural substance used in foodstuffs since before 1997? No, it hasn’t. If you’re cold pressing your product, we have no problem with it; if you extract it using supercritical CO2, you’re creating very high levels of concentration to which the human body has not been exposed before and so you need to be able to confirm that there are no toxicology implications. The industry has to work with the regulators, but the process of applying for Novel Foods authorisation is extremely expensive and that risks deterring small to medium-sized enterprises from applying.

This is a global industry that is developing; and the very essence of the CTA now is to bring forward ideas and propositions for how the UK industry can move forward post-Brexit. We can learn from Canada or Australia – they’re way ahead of where we are by at least two or three years; Canada has had access to medical cannabis for three decades. We’re just starting this process – and we need a government department for cannabis.

Should a cannabis department set up to manage the major issues of the industry be overseen by the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Agriculture?

Either of those would work, though I wouldn’t like it to be under the Home Office, which has a particular narrative in terms of cannabis. We have to look at sustainability, and we have to look at health issues.

A hectare of hemp cannabis will absorb more carbon than the same breadth of rainforest. We have the capability to replace carbon-based oils and plastics with naturally grown hemp-based products. We need to industrialise that process to sequester more carbon. Then we have the wellness sector based around cannabinoids. For me, this whole idea of an integrated cannabis economy is what I’m working to until I retire.

Western medicine has always been very focused on fixing a specific problem with a specific molecule. Synthetic cannabinoids have an extremely chequered history and have led to death, whereas phytocannabinoids actually are proven to work. Around 230 million people around the world use cannabis and its derivatives for medical purposes; it’s a very, very safe drug with a lot of benefits that can really move the dial forward in terms of research.

The UK used to be a leader in research – we’ve got more Nobel prizes than virtually anywhere, we know how to do research and we can do it – but we’ve fallen behind so many countries now, because of our reluctance to move forward on liberalisation of regulation; so we need a department that actually sees that vision and lifts its head out of the very narrow regulatory frameworks and looks to the horizon for the future. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is always telling us we need this entrepreneurial economy that is going to generate jobs and income streams; and we’re looking at something that has the potential to do so, but reluctance to change and confirmation bias are slowing us down.

Does the EU’s shifting approach to cannabis as a Novel Food and as a narcotic present an opportunity for the UK’s post-Brexit cannabis industry?

We are at a key point in time right now which enables us to have so much opportunity coming out of the EU. The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) asked its legal advisors to draw up a declaration on the status of cannabis in early 2019; and that declaration drew on the United Nations’ (UN) Narcotics Convention, which holds cannabis to be a narcotic. The World Health Organization doesn’t agree, but the UN still has not made any change.

Medical cannabis has now got a framework in this country. It’s a very rudimentary framework, but it is a framework we can use to drive things forward and gather data – and data is the essence of everything we do. In Canada, cannabis is absolutely acceptable. In Australia, medical cannabis is available on prescription. Jamaica has legal access to medical cannabis and, to, a certain extent cannabis for adult use. New Zealand is about to hold a referendum in October on the legality of cannabis, which was written into a coalition agreement between the ruling parties – but it is by no means a certainty that New Zealanders will vote in favour of adult access; and the main reason for that is that they never developed a medical access programme. More than 100 years of misinformation has been built up and indoctrinated into the general population, that cannabis is this harmful thing that just does damage to society. Education is the key to all this; and I don’t think New Zealand went through that education process. People will not vote for change if there hasn’t yet been the bigger societal shift where people start to see the benefits of access to cannabis.

Doctors prescribing medical cannabis are making those decisions based on two cannabinoids, CBD and THC; they may have some terpene information, but not by any means a whole picture. Cannabis is not one thing: it is a whole range of different things ranging from cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids; and each one of those ingredients has very different effects. That is the very essence of what we have to educate people on: the talking about cannabis as one thing is a misnomer. It doesn’t exist. It is a whole range of different possibilities.

The Royal Society of Paediatricians’ document on epilepsy talks about surgery as being the first option to treat severe childhood epilepsy before non-invasive, non-destructive treatment with cannabis. That is confirmation of bias, pure and simple. The government and the General Medical Council (GMC) put forward this proposition that the people in the best position to issue cannabis prescriptions are consultant-level specialists. The endocannabinoid system has an influence on everything – it is the body’s overall management system – so why are consultants the only doctors allowed to prescribe, rather than GPs who are specifically trained on the endocannabinoid system?

Is messaging a significant issue, then, in demonstrating that the cannabis industry is legitimate?

This is a nascent industry. It is just starting out, coming from a background of hostility where it has been underground. My nephew, who is now training to be a doctor at a major UK university, is in his third and final year and he has not yet learned anything about the endocannabinoid system, which is the engine management system of the body. It makes everything work together and co-ordinates all these different systems; and doctors are still not being trained in 2020 on how it works or what is so essential about it. That is just remarkable and, actually, quite shocking.

Most millennials are now discounting the rhetoric produced by the medical profession, because they are starting to understand these issues independently. For the industry as a whole education is essential; and I think that’s something that everybody has a role in. We’re all influencers: we all have people around us who are interested in what we’re doing, so if I’m taking CBD and it works, I will tell people that it is useful.

There is research now coming out of Israel indicating that cannabis may have a prophylactic effect on Alzheimer’s disease. Are we then going to wait for somebody in the UK to replicate that research or are we going to recognise Israeli science, which has been some of the best in the world? Why are we not taking on board Australian science, Canadian science, or American science showing the real advantages of understanding the endocannabinoid system?

There are at least 97 distinct cannabinoids, of which the UK prohibits 17; one of those prohibited cannabinoids is CBN. In this country, we have a real issue with sleep deprivation – people just can’t get to sleep – and the pharmaceutical drugs which are available for fighting insomnia have some really detrimental side effects; long-term use can be life-threatening. Meanwhile, there is evidence that a combination of CBN and CBD mix can be equally effective with no side effects – so why are we not fast tracking this?

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected the UK’s cannabis and hemp industries? How have industry bodies responded?

It’s almost been a reflection of society in itself, in that a lot of CBD-based products were initially sold through high street locations; then when the lockdown happened those sales went online. It will be interesting to see whether brick-and-mortar sales pick up again, or whether it is an online business that develops further moving forward. In the medical cannabis sector, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) went from requiring all cannabis clinics to see their patients in person to permitting them to use telemedicine apps – and that has been a revelation; I hope that there will be more integration of technology in the sector.

The very essence of building this industry to a global standard is to create a global testing environment. How can I know that the cannabis I test in Colorado will have the same results in the UK? The industry needs to implement standardised testing moving forward – and that is where the UK can lead. We can become world leaders very quickly, especially if we listen to the evidence.

Tim Henley
Cannabis Trades Association

This article is for issue 4 of Medical Cannabis Network. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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