The emergence of the private medical cannabis market and the risks of private prescriptions

8 February 2022

In September 2020, the first NHS prescription for cannabis medicine was issued to Billy Caldwell. This brought hope to him, his family and so many others that this medicine would become readily available to those patients who so desperately need it.

Over a year later, the NHS is still incredibly reluctant to prescribe medical cannabis. It is difficult at this moment in time to ascertain exactly how many patients have received NHS prescriptions for licensed cannabis medicines, although it is estimated in the low hundreds[1].

Alongside this, the private market is booming with clinics popping up all over London (and other cities) many of them making their debut on the London Stock Exchange. However, one has to wonder, in a country where people are fighting to make cannabis-based medicine available to all those who need it through the NHS, is the development of the private market helpful or just another hurdle?

The emergence of the private medical cannabis market

Following the 2018 legal changes, allowing products containing cannabis to be prescribed for medicinal use by specialist doctors, London slowly became a hub for medical cannabis companies. Many companies were looking to emulate the success seen in countries such as Canada, where the legal adult-use market was estimated to stand at 2.6 billion Canadian dollars in 2020. There was a surge in investors looking to get in on what they hoped would be a new major UK industry.

Since then, the UK private market for CBD oils has been booming and the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis estimates that the UK market could be worth almost £1bn a year by 2025[2]. In September 2020, the Financial Conduct Authority even allowed medical cannabis companies to list on the London Stock Exchange, with companies such as MGC Pharmaceuticals or Kanabo Group taking the plunge.

This has also led to the emergence of private cannabis clinics, with 8 of the ones in London being registered with the Care and Quality Commission, and even more can now be found all over the country. These clinics could be seen to be plugging the gap left by the NHS’ reluctance to prescribe this, but the pressing issue that exists is the cost of the medication.

The risks of private prescriptions

It certainly cannot be said that paying for cannabis based medication privately is cheap. It is estimated that on average, the cost of privately obtaining this medication is up to £1,800 per month, although with the development of the private market, cheaper prices are being advertised. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that a lot of families simply cannot afford this cost. They are counting on the NHS providing their love ones, especially children, with a prescription. Unfortunately, recent reports show that this is just not happening quickly or frequently enough yet.

Hannah Deacon, whose son Alfie was the first patient in the UK to receive a permanent licence for prescribed medicinal cannabis on the NHS, recently wrote to the Prime Minister about the current state of the NHS’ prescriptions for medical cannabis, pleading with him to “make this right”. She stated that “patient and parents’ desperation to have access to this life changing medicine has led them to obtain it privately, at a huge financial cost for their families. They could even worry about being drawn to the black market to treat their children.”

Indeed, in a poll undertaken by YouGov on behalf of the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis and patient advocacy group, Cannabis Patient and Advocacy support Service (CPASS), it is estimated that the number of people in the UK who resort to sourcing and using “street” cannabis (marijuana) to treat chronic health conditions is close to 1.4 million users (2.8% of the adult population).

Previously, these patients were also frequently going abroad to countries such as the Netherlands to obtain the medicine from a Dutch doctor using a private UK prescription, because the NHS refused to pay for the medicine. However, since 1 January 2021 and the UK’s exit from the EU, these prescriptions issued in the UK cannot be lawfully dispensed by an EU member state.

Patients and their families are feeling being backed into a corner. For these parents, they are unsupported by doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, the government and policy-makers. Even doctors who may be supportive are limited by the strict present guidelines.

So for them, the private markets and clinics could be seen as a good thing. It makes the medicine readily available for those who can afford it. It also offers doctors a way to treat patients outside of the restrictive guidelines, and refer them to private specialists who can help.

However, it is difficult to see how this could be considered a long term, appropriate solution for the patients who desperately need this medication. It creates a divide between those who can afford the medication and those who simply cannot. It could also be said that having these clinics readily available does not encourage the government or the NHS to take pro-active steps to find solutions for patients.

Organisations such as End our Pain and Epilepsy Action are calling for the government to provide financial support or alternative access to these medicines through the NHS as a matter of urgency. This could be a solution in the interim, to give the NHS the time they need to obtain the data to make prescriptions readily available, while still allowing patients the option of obtaining the medication privately in the interim, without financially crippling them along the way.

We shall be keenly watching this space.

[1] An update on medical cannabis prescribing in the UK by Angela Downden, Prescriber, Volume 32, Issue 3 p.24-27

[2] An update on medical cannabis prescribing in the UK by Angela Downden, Prescriber, Volume 32, Issue 3 p.24-27

Further information

If you have any questions regarding this blog, please contact Alice Trotter in our Regulatory team. 

About the authors

Alice Trotter is a trainee solicitor at Kingsley Napley and is currently in her first seat in the Regulatory team, specialising in advising individuals and firms in the regulated sectors. Prior to commencing her training contract, Alice was a Paralegal in the Family Team, where she assisted partners and associates in with a range of cases.

Shannett Thompson is a Partner in the Regulatory Team having trained in the NHS and commenced her career exclusively defending doctors. In addition, Shannett has built up a significant niche in advising investors and businesses in the cannabis sector and has been at the forefront of providing advice in the area of cannabis-based medicines, CBD and related licensing issues.

Share insightLinkedIn Twitter Facebook Email to a friend Print

Email this page to a friend

We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

Leave a comment

You may also be interested in:

Skip to content Home About Us Insights Services Contact Accessibility