In November 2021, following his resignation from the Committee of Home Affairs of Guernsey (one of the UK Channel Islands), Marc Leadbeater, now the Deputy, announced that he will move to have the legalisation of cannabis debated by the government of Guernsey. Leadbeater hopes to persuade the government to follow the Canadian model, focusing on public health. He resigned from the Committee because he is also a director of a local cannabis company and recognised a conflict of interest by continuing working for the Committee (BBC News 2021a).
Were cannabis legalization to be enacted, this would be a radical change in the Channel Islands, which currently enforces some of the harshest penalties for cannabis possession in the UK, where someone can still be imprisoned for possession of a small amount.
The First UK Medical Cannabis Licence
In countries where the recreational use of cannabis is now legal, the first significant legal change was, in nearly all cases, government approval and general public acceptance of medical cannabis. The primary influence in persuading the UK government to lift restrictions and approve cannabis medicines was patient activist groups, particularly those campaigning in the 1990s on behalf of patients with either multiple sclerosis or epilepsy (Taylor 2021).
GW Pharmaceuticals, founded in 1998 in Cambridge by Geoffrey Guy and Brian Whittle, obtained the first license in the UK to cultivate cannabis for medical purposes. After getting a licence, GW Pharmaceuticals collaborated later in 1998 with a Dutch company based in Amsterdam, Hortapharm B.V., which was founded by two expert horticulturists from California, Robert Connell Clarke and David Paul Watson. With permission from the Dutch government, Hortapharm B.V. developed specialised strains of cannabis that GW Pharmaceuticals could use (Wikipedia 2021).
The first clinical trials with cannabinoids by GW Pharmaceuticals began in 1999. GW Pharmaceuticals has since collaborated with 1,300 institutions for cannabis research, mainly for epilepsy, autism spectrum disorders, glioma (a kind of brain tumour), schizophrenia, and neonatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (NHIE), a kind of brain injury caused during birth, resulting from deprivation from oxygen (GW Pharmaceuticals 2021).
GW Pharmaceuticals Finances and Products
Headed by Justin Gover, GW Pharmaceuticals has become one of the world’s largest exporters of medical cannabis. In 2015, Greenwich Biosciences, a subsidiary branch of the company, was established in the USA. In 2020, GW Pharmaceuticals had revenue of $527 million and assets totalling $939 million (Wikipedia 2021). Then, in February 2021, GW Pharmaceuticals announced that it was being acquired by Jazz Pharmaceuticals for a whopping $7.2 billion, a process completed in May 2021, sending shares in the company up by 40.5% (Duberstein 2021; Jazz Pharmaceuticals 2021).
The main product of GW Pharmaceuticals is Sativex, a medicine used mainly for multiple sclerosis and relief from the symptoms of HIV, which received authorisation on 16th June 2010; they also produce Epidyolex for epilepsy. Sativex contains not only CBD but even more THC. Each 100 microlitre spray contains 2.5 mg cannabidiol (CBD) and 2.7 mg of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (EMC 2020). By 2017, Sativex had been approved for use in twenty-five countries (Taylor 2021:341).
The Second UK Medical Cannabis Licence
Over twenty years since the first cannabis cultivation licence was granted by the UK government, a second UK licence was issued in December 2020 to Northern Leaf, a company set up in Jersey (the largest Channel Island) in 2018 to cultivate cannabis in an area of up to 400,000 square feet, and to develop medical applications. The company will work with larger cannabis companies, such as Aurora Cannabis, Emmac, and Tilray, which already operate in various countries in Europe.
A proposal for another medical cannabis farm in Jersey was submitted in August 2019 by Solairo Ltd, who proposed converting a tomato farm into a cannabis farm (Ledger 2019). The development of the cannabis industry in Jersey is now being reported on a dedicated website (Jersey Hemp 2021).
Channel Islands Licences
There are two centres of government administration in the Channel Islands, known as Bailiwicks, one based on Jersey, the other on Guernsey. In November 2021, the Bailiwick of Guernsey Cannabis Agency also announced that it will also start issuing licences for cannabis production (BBC News 2021b). The Guernsey government website now has an application form for obtaining cannabis licences. By 23rd November 2021, seven applications had been received and one was granted to the company 4C Labs (BBC News 2021c; Gov. gg 2021a).
In Europe, twenty countries have now approved medical cannabis, an industry estimated to be worth $3.9 billion by 2025. Medical cannabis has seen an annual growth rate of around 60% (Morris 2021). Profits from the cannabis industry in the Channel Islands will be taxed at 20% (Miller 2021).
The Channel Islands are partly independent of UK law, which works in their favour when processing cannabis plants. By law, confirmed in a ruling on 9th August 2019 (Cannevi 2021), farmers in Jersey are permitted to harvest the entire cannabis plant, including the female flowering buds. In contrast, in the rest of the UK (in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), hemp farmers are required by law to destroy the commercially valuable female flowers of hemp crops. Also, the law in Jersey allows a 3% ratio of THC to CBD, which means that a product containing 50% CBD can also contain 1.5% THC. This makes various extractions from the plant much easier (Griffin 2020).
One of the factors driving the commercial development of cannabis in the Channel Islands will be the ability to diversify agriculture away from over-dependence on Jersey Royal potatoes, which are a significant export crop from the islands. Cannabis requires no fertilisers or pesticides. It will provide employment for many people and is expected to expand enormously in the next few years.
Doctors Gain Permission to Prescribe Cannabis
Even though medicines containing cannabis were technically outlawed globally by the UN in 1924, in 1973, cannabis-based medicines were eventually withdrawn in the UK, owing to restrictive medical classification. However, in November 2018, the UK government rescheduled cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug to a Schedule 2 drug, which again permitted GPs in the UK to prescribe it for certain conditions (Taylor 2021:341, 357).
The new legislation also allowed the States Assembly of the Channel Islands to follow suit. Subsequently, the first medical cannabis clinic was established in Jersey, with specialist doctors trained by the medical cannabis company Medicann. Senator Lyndon Farnham, Jersey’s Economic Development Minister, announced plans at the 2019 Cannabis Europa convention for Jersey to become a centre of excellence for the cannabis industry (Ledger 2021).
Individuals in the Channel Islands who require medical cannabis can now also apply for an import license, for £25, to enable them to import cannabis medicine from the rest of the UK. This is expected to be effective by early 2022 (Gov. gg 2021b).
It remains to be seen whether or not the governments of the Channel Islands decide to consider the legalisation of cannabis, as the islands are notoriously conservative in such matters. However, suppose cannabis history is any guide, after the acceptance and approval of medical cannabis. In that case, it is usually not long before the practical sensibility of legalising cannabis, and the enormous profits that it generates, are generally enough to sway both popular and government opinions.
BBC News (2021a). ‘Guernsey States set to debate cannabis legalisation.’ 2nd November. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-guernsey-59132753
BBC News (2021b). ‘First cannabis licence granted for medicinal products’. 23rd November. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cx3321qqpy0o
BBC News (2021c). ‘UK firm wins first licence to produce medical cannabis in Guernsey’. 24th November. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cg93v53vljjo
Cannevi (2021). ‘Jersey’s Cannabis Industry’. https://cannevi.je/jerseys-cannabis-industry
Duberstein, Billy (2021). ‘Why GW Pharmaceuticals Stock Rocketed 40.5% in February’. The Motley Fool, 5th March. https://www.fool.com/investing/2021/03/05/why-gw-pharmaceuticals-rocketed-405-in-february/
EMC (2020). ‘Sativex Oromucosal Spray’. 25th August. https://www.medicines.org.uk/emc/product/602/smpc
Gov.gg (2021a). ‘Guernsey issues its first licence to cultivate Cannabis-Based Products Medicinal’. 23rd November. https://gov.gg/cannabisfaqs
Gov.gg (2021b). ‘Prescribed medicinal cannabis products: Obtaining a licence to import CBPM to Guernsey from UK’. https://www.gov.gg/mhc
Griffin, Bill (2020). New Frontier Data. ‘How a Channel Island is Leading Progressive European Hemp Regulations’. 13th January. https://newfrontierdata.com/cannabis-insights/how-a-channel-island-is-leading-progressive-european-hemp-regulations/
GW Pharmaceuticals (2021). https://www.gwpharm.co.uk/
Jazz Pharmaceuticals (2021). ‘Jazz Pharmaceuticals to Acquire GW Pharmaceuticals plc, Creating an Innovative, High-Growth, Global Pharma Leader’. 3rd February. https://investor.jazzpharma.com/news-releases/news-release-details/jazz-pharmaceuticals-acquire-gw-pharmaceuticals-plc-creating
Jersey Hemp (2021). https://jersey-hemp.com/about/press/
Ledger, Emily (2019). ‘Second Medical Cannabis Farm Under Discussion in Jersey’. Cannex, 30th August. https://canex.co.uk/second-medical-cannabis-farm-under-discussion-in-jersey/
Ledger, Emily (2021). ‘Jersey Start-Up Granted Second Ever License to Cultivate Cannabis’. Cannex, 12th January.
Miller, Freddie (2021). ‘Jersey’s medicinal cannabis industry to be taxed at 20%’. BBC News, 30th April. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-56946327
Morris, Michael (2021). ‘First licences are issued to grow medicinal cannabis’. Jersey Evening Post, 11th January. https://jerseyeveningpost.com/news/2021/01/11/first-licences-are-issued-to-grow-medicinal-cannabis/
Taylor, Suzanne (2021). ‘Forces of Necessity: Lay Advocacy and the Remedicalization of Cannabis in the UK, 1973–2004’. In Lucas Richert and James H. Mills (eds.), Cannabis: Global Histories, pp. 341–361. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London UK: MIT Press.
Wikipedia (2021). ‘GW Pharmaceuticals’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GW_Pharmaceuticals