Brexit takes a new turn – but what lies ahead for the UK’s legal cannabis industry?

14.03.2019

With Parliament voting down both Theresa May’s negotiated deal with the EU and the prospect of a no-deal exit, the UK will now endure a further period of prolonged commercial uncertainty. And while the binary option of deal or no-deal may have theoretically been removed from the table, this has effectively broadened the range of potential outcomes that could lie ahead. But what will this mean for the UK’s legal cannabis industry?

Beyond the cliff edge

If an extension to Article 50 isn’t granted by the EU and the UK by default leaves the EU without a deal, this will have little-to-no effect on the outlook for cannabis policy in the UK. The European Commission has long adopted the notion that member states decide their own laws on drug use and this is borne out by the patchwork of differing policies in operation across the region. Portugal for example had decriminalised all drugs, while France still houses some of the strictest laws in the region. The UK has not decriminalised recreational cannabis, but has recently turned a corner on legalising medical cannabis. However there is still a considerable amount of legislation prohibiting medical use beyond the tight remit of eligible prescriptions. Thus, a no-deal Brexit is likely to see the UK fall behind on some of the coordinated progress that EU states have been making towards decriminalisation.

After darkness comes the light…

The UK political scene is however undergoing seismic shifts, with an audible demand for a different dynamic in representation beyond the two-party system emerging as a by-product. Access to legal cannabis could even raise its head as an issue of political traction in the future as the UK political landscape grapples to regain the people’s trust in the post-Brexit void.

Will no deal see the UK miss out on the EU’s coordinated approach to medical cannabis?

EU member states recently voted to agree a legal definition of medical cannabis and to create a clear distinction between cannabis-based medicines approved by regulatory bodies and those products not supported by medical trials. This was designed to facilitate the movement and development of medical cannabis products within the EU area. A hard Brexit could therefore see the UK miss out on some of the benefits of this long-awaited milestone.

Contingency planning and regulatory alignment

However, with the UK so far undertaking a policy to align its trading standards and definitions, datasets and databases with that of the EU in order to facilitate future trading, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, we are likely to see any definitions and distinctions adopted by the EU also adopted on this side of the channel.

This will see the testing, development and classification of cannabis-based medicines and therapies undertaken within a regulatory framework adopted by both the EU and the UK to ensure the continued development and consistency of products that can be used and traded legally across both regions.

Special relationships that endure beyond the cliff-edge

The UK is likely to achieve this mutual framework by working toward something known as associate membership of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which would enable the UK to contribute to the scientific assessment of medicines, giving the UK a voice if not a vote. This would allow a relationship to continue between Europe and the UK medically, ensuring that both sides of the border can contribute to the development of medical cannabis.

Indeed, the EU member states have already acknowledged that the EU has relationships with non-EU countries, and that the UK (in the form of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will continue to have a relationship in this regard owing to its considerable contribution in this area. Once again, a policy of mutual standardisation and adherence to established processes already in place are a key part to maintaining this relationship beyond Brexit.

And this is crucial to the progression of patient access to medical cannabis across the UK-EU region. The severe restrictions on collaborative research, development and education that have occurred under prohibition and partially legalised systems are solely responsible for the ongoing suffering of patients in both regions, who are in desperate need of access to effective and legally available medical products.

With the UK previously threatening to turn itself into a Singapore-style tax haven in order to boost its competitive advantage outside of the EU, cannabis could well represent another avenue that the UK will pursue in order to reassert its global standing and stabilise some of the shock to the economy.

Norway +, Theresa May’s deal and the softer deal options

If the UK does somehow negotiate a deal to stay in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and European Economic Area (EEA) which would enable the free movement of goods, then this kind of contingency alignment planning will mean there is unlikely to be any real change regarding the import and export of medical cannabis prescriptions.

The hardest of Brexits and the benefits of a sovereign state

If the UK decides to pursue a more liberal pathway in medical cannabis trading post-Brexit, its freedom to make its own decisions and deals on an international basis could be of benefit, particularly if it does decide to aggressively pursue trading deals in regions such as the US and Canada where a legal medical cannabis supply model is more firmly established.

A cliff-edge Brexit could also force the British government to further relax the rules on medical cannabis in order to unlock the country’s own resources. Despite its stringent laws on cannabis, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reported that in 2016, the UK produced 95 tonnes of legal cannabis, more than double the amount produced in 2015 (42 tonnes) and this meant that UK production accounted for almost 45% of the world’s total legal cannabis supply.

With the UK previously threatening to turn itself into a Singapore-style tax haven in order to boost its competitive advantage outside of the EU, cannabis could well represent another avenue that the UK will pursue in order to reassert its global standing and stabilise some of the shock to the economy.

At the other end of the spectrum, the numerous available options for a ‘soft’ Brexit (or indeed no Brexit at all) that have now been opened up for debate in Parliament mean that the exact nature of future European imports and exports remains unclear.

A brave new industry, for a brave new world?

Uncertainty is threatening to shake the established security of traditional British trading. But challenge and ambiguity are nothing new for those operating within the medical cannabis industry. A significant level of red tape already exists around the shipping of medical cannabis prescriptions into the UK from anywhere in the world, as currently it is classified by the MHRA as a ‘special’, that hasn’t cleared standard medicine regulations and therefore has to be specially licenced for import. However ECH remains committed to expanding access to cannabis, irrespective of complications related to Brexit.

Those who currently operate in the cannabis market, have already demonstrated a pioneering spirit and adaptive nature which will be crucial in the months ahead as the UK embarks on one of the most monumental shifts to the UK trading environment in modern times. Indeed, with the only certainty, uncertainty itself, the time is ripe for the kind of change that might put the UK’s emerging medical cannabis industry firmly on the map.

Brexit takes a new turn – but what lies ahead for the UK’s legal cannabis industry?

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