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Recent developments in the UK’s medical marijuana market: what may be next for investors? Part I

In October 2018, the Home Office announced that “Patients can be prescribed medicinal cannabis by specialist doctors from 1 November 2018.”

In a series of articles, I’d first like to discuss the development of the market for medical marijuana and then what it may potentially mean for British investors. 

Canada: first G7 nation to legalise marijuana

In 2018, Canada legalised marijuana federally. A number of federally licensed Canadian cannabis producers have started trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE) as well as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

Now, the general public does not know the difference between cannabis, marijuana and hemp very well. Therefore people often use these terms interchangeably.

Cannabis Sativa is the botanical name of the plant species. This plant has different strains, one of which is industrial hemp and another is marijuana. Therefore hemp and marijuana are sometimes referred to as ‘cousins’.

Industrial hemp naturally has high levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD is especially popular among consumers seeking relief from physical pain.

THC is behind the ‘high’ from smoking marijuana; in other words, hemp does not have the psychoactive properties of marijuana. Hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% of this psychoactive ingredient THC. Marijuana has high levels of THC and lower levels of CBD.

Legal Status in the US

At the federal level, marijuana is illegal in the US. However, at the state level, its legal status depends on the laws of the individual state.

State-wide legalisation in the US allows for both individual marijuana possession as well as the legal production and sale of the drug. Legalisation can happen in two categories: the legalisation of recreational marijuana or of medical cannabis.

Also in December 2018, the US Congress passed the Farm Bill, which federally legalised hemp and hemp-derived ingredient CBD.

Recent developments in the UK

Following the recent regulatory change by the Home Office, there is now no limit on the types of conditions that can be considered for treatment by legally prescribed marijuana.

And medical doctors do not need to seek approval from an expert panel in order for patients to access the medicines. Earlier in 2019, UK’s first medical cannabis clinic opened in Greater Manchester.

The recreational sale and use of cannabis, a Class B drug (with possession punishable by five years in prison), is banned.

On the other hand, low concentration versions of cannabis oil are available in pharmacies. However, CBD products are still illegal to manufacture in Britain. It is only through EU regulation that imported CBD products can be sold domestically without any kind of licence.

Our readers may be interested to know that a 2018-report by the United Nations revealed that Britain is the biggest producer and exporter of legal cannabis in the world. In 2016, the UK produced 95 tonnes of marijuana and exported 2.1 tonnes.

Virtually all of that is one drug, Sativex, produced by Cambridge-based GW Pharmaceuticals. In 1998, the company obtained a unique Home Office licence to cultivate cannabis seeds. It now produces Sativex to treat spasms in multiple sclerosis patients.  The company also moved its stock market listing from London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM) to the NASDAQ market in the US.

In short, we are now witnessing more public debate on medical marijuana, CBD and the rapidly changing industry.

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Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.