The United Kingdom consists of 4 countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. While each of these countries has its own set of laws, they all abide by the same cannabis legislation. Unfortunately, weed is recreationally illegal in the UK. As in the United States, illicit cannabis use is prevalent despite prohibition. There is only one legal way to obtain cannabis in the UK, and that is through a medical prescription. A person who has been convicted of possessing cannabis without a medical prescription may receive a prison sentence of up to 5 years and an unlimited fine. A person who has been convicted of supplying or producing cannabis may receive a prison sentence of up to 14 years and an unlimited fine.
Medical Marijuana is Legal in the UK
As in the United States, the UK places cannabis in a drug schedule. When this drug schedule was first signed into law, cannabis was categorized as a Schedule 1 substance. It was illegal to possess or supply cannabis without special permission. In November 2018, the U.K. rescheduled cannabis to a Schedule 2 substance, meaning it could be legally prescribed by doctors on the General Medical Council specialist register. The government defines a “cannabis-based product for medicinal use (CBPM)” as one that meets the following criteria:
- The product is cannabis or contains cannabis, cannabis resin, cannabinol or a cannabinol derivative
- The product is intended for medicinal use in humans
- The product is regulated by the government as a medicinal product or an ingredient of a medicinal product
However, this definition does not include CBD (cannabidiol). CBD is legal in the UK and is not a scheduled substance. CBD is not controlled by the government because pure CBD products contain little to no THC.
How to Get Medical Marijuana in the UK
There is a legal avenue to obtain medical cannabis, but it is a narrow one. The government has made it legal for certain doctors to prescribe cannabis, but it has also encouraged doctors to use cannabis prescriptions as a last resort. The government has emphasized the lack of clinical evidence supporting most cannabis-based medicines. However, since cannabis has been strictly prohibited until recently, there has been little opportunity for scientists to conduct the necessary research. Consequently, convincing doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients has been difficult. Despite these hurdles, some patients are being prescribed cannabis. Here is how to get a prescription for medical cannabis in the United Kingdom.
Step 1. Determine the likelihood of being prescribed marijuana
There is no list of qualifying medical conditions to be eligible for a cannabis prescription. The government has given specialist doctors the authority to determine the appropriateness of cannabis as medicine for their patients based on the patient’s clinical condition and the evidence supporting cannabis as a treatment for that condition. Even though there is no official list of qualifying conditions, the government has recommended the use of cannabis as a treatment for people with chronic pain, intractable nausea, and vomiting, spasticity, or severe treatment-resistant epilepsy. Patients with one of those conditions are more likely to be prescribed cannabis than patients with other conditions. While the government has issued the aforementioned recommendations, it has also recommended that cannabis remain a third-line treatment. It recommends doctors first prescribe treatments licensed for the specific disorder, then off-label medicines for the disorder. If these first two treatment types do not work, then doctors should consider cannabis as a third option.
Step 2. Find the right doctor
Medical patients must schedule an appointment with a clinician listed on the Specialist Register of the General Medical Council. To find a doctor listed on the Special Register, you can search by name on the medical register. If a clinician is listed on the Special Register, it will say so as a part of their medical register status. This might be easier in a major city like London rather than a more rural town. You can also select “special register” as a search criterion to filter your results. However, in order to use this search tool, you must already have the doctor’s name or GMC number. In addition to having Special Register as a part of their status, the clinician must be a specialist in the condition for which the patient is seeking treatment. For example, if the patient has epilepsy, the clinician must specialize in treating epilepsy to be authorized to prescribe cannabis. Once the registered specialist has established a cannabis-based treatment prescription for a patient, supplementary prescribers (such as specialty registrars, supplementary prescribers, and non-medical independent prescribers) may continue to prescribe cannabis for the patient. The patient must remain under the direct care of the registered specialist doctor for the duration of the prescription period, however. Whether or not cannabis is an appropriate treatment for the patient’s condition is left to the doctor’s discretion. A cannabis prescription is not a guarantee even if the patient finds a doctor who is authorized to prescribe medical cannabis.
Step 3. Buying Cannabis in the UK
This step has proven to be very difficult for patients in the UK. Pharmacies must obtain special licensing to stock cannabis since it is a Schedule 2 substance. The ones that do have the appropriate licensing are choosing not to stock or import cannabis medicines. Patients are mostly left to obtain regulated cannabis from the private sector. However, private medicine is much more expensive than public since it does not receive funding from the government. UK patients are in the frustrating situation of having a legal way to obtain cannabis that isn’t there.
The UK Encourages Cannabis Research
The government is encouraging the British scientific community to expand research on cannabis-based medicines. Researching medicinal cannabis remains a “priority,” and the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research has prioritized the funding of the following research areas:
- CBD as a treatment for adult patients with fibromyalgia or treatment-resistant neuropathic pain
- The use of medicinal cannabis to treat chronic pain in pediatric patients
- Cannabis as treatment of spasticity
- Cannabis as a treatment for severe epilepsy in all ages
- The effect of combined THC and CBD versus CBD only on brain structure and the treatment of seizures
The UK government cites the lack of evidence supporting the use of cannabis-based medicines as the reason for restricting its access.