A United Nations study brings back the surprise finding that the world’s biggest producer of legal cannabis is Great Britain. The answer to this seeming anomaly lies in one UK-based multinational corporation with industrial-scale grow operations for production of pharmaceuticals.
Many observers of the industry were surprised by the findings of the annual report issued this week by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a United Nations body.
The INCB lists the UK as the world’s top producer of legal cannabis, at a national total of 95 tons in 2016 — more than double on the figure for the previous year. This accounted for some 45 percent of the global total, according to a write-up on the report in London’s Evening Standard. The UK was also found to have exported 2.1 tons, making for an impressive 67.7 percent of the world total.
Second to the UK in global cannabis production was Canada, at 80.7 tons, followed by Portugal (21 tons), Israel (9.2 tons), the Netherlands and Chile (each clocking in at 1.4 tons). The Netherlands comes in a distant second to the UK as an exporter of cannabis — accounting for 16.4 percent of the world total.
The answer to this enigma apparently lies in the British firm GW Pharmaceuticals, which markets Epidiolex, an epilepsy treatment, and Sativex, for muscle spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. Both are derived from cannabinoids.
“The majority of [UK] production is for Sativex, but a considerable amount has been developed for Epidiolex,” Stephen Murphy, managing director of UK-based cannabis industry consultancy Prohibition Partners, told the Financial Post. “Product development and research would also account for a large percent [of production].”
GW’s operations also seem to account for most of the UK’s exports, with the product going to corporate and university laboratories around the world, rather than the retail medical market.
The GW Pharmaceuticals website says: “Since 1998, GW has been licensed by the UK Home Office to cultivate cannabis plants for medical use… GW’s cannabis plants are grown in highly secure glasshouses. All key aspects of the growing climate are controlled and the plants are grown without the use of pesticides. Careful control of the growing environment ensures that GW’s plant material is grown to very strict pharmaceutical standards and that growth is phased to ensure continuity of supply.”
Indeed, just last month, The Telegraph predicted: “The UK could become the world’s biggest grower and processor of cannabis plants destined for use in prescription medications after one of the country’s most promising biotechs announced plans to ramp up its production of the plant.” By the INCB findings, GW has already propelled Britain into the number one global position.
According to The Telegraph account of the report, most of the GW cannabis is actually being grown under contract by British Sugar at its 18-hectare greenhouse in Norfolk — the largest such facility in the UK, equivalent in size to 23 soccer fields. The facility was built to grow tomatoes. Additionally, GW over the next three years intends to more than triple capacity at one of its own facilities in England’s South East.
All this is rather ironic given the UK’s continuing intolerant position on use of cannabis products not being marketed by corporate pharma giants — even for medical purposes. Under the system created by the UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, cannabis is in the restrictive Class B — for drugs deemed too potentially dangerous for medical use. In 2004, cannabis was placed in the less restrictive Class C, but this was reversed by the Home Office in 2008. In 2016, Parliament rejected a petition to have cannabis removed from the classification system altogether. The GW website explains that the company is licensed by the Home Office to produce for “research and development” purposes.
Last month, The Guardian reported on the British government’s refusal to issue a license for a six-year-old boy with a severe form of epilepsy to be treated with cannabis oil. Alfie Dingley, from Kenilworth, Warwickshire, suffers as many as 30 seizures each day. His mother said the attacks decreased dramatically in both number and severity while he was in the Netherlands to be treated with a cannabis-based medication. Members of the multi-party drug policy reform bloc in Parliament urged the Home Office to allow Dingley to access his medicine. But the Home Office was intransigent. An official statement said cannabis oil “cannot be practically prescribed, administered or supplied to the public.”
Steve Rolles, an analyst with the reform advocacy group Transform, told The Independent: “It is scandalous and untenable for the UK government to maintain that cannabis has no medical uses, at the same time as licensing the world’s biggest government-approved medical cannabis production and export market.”
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