Take a walk through the heart of the Barbican Centre, London, and you’ll find yourself in The Conservatory. Here, brutalist concrete architecture has been colonized by tropical plants. Wide, juicy leaves cascade from every floor. Overhead, glass-domed walkways crisscross between conference rooms and lounges. It could either be a post apocalyptic return to nature or a newfound harmony between humans and plants.
There could be no more fitting venue to host the inaugural Cannabis Europa, Europe’s largest cannabis convention, last Tuesday, bringing together Europe’s leading policy influencers to discuss the future of cannabis. A decade ago, this was a discussion dominated by fringe activists and patients. But this year, leading thinkers from business and science were focused on the pragmatics of bringing medical cannabis to patients. A sea change has occurred; 78 per cent of the public now support the introduction of medical cannabis in some form. For these thinkers, it’s clearly a question of when, not if, medical cannabis becomes widely available and what we need to do to make this revolution as smooth as possible.
Medical cannabis or cannabis medicine?
There was no need to convince any conference delegates of cannabis’ many therapeutic applications, ranging from epilepsy to cancer. Cannabis’ medicinal properties have been broadly established for decades (though more work is needed to understand them better). The talk among scientists this year honed in on more pragmatic issues arising from the spread of medical cannabis. A recurring division emerged between those who would see specific cannabinoids researched and developed into finely tuned medication and those arguing that cannabis in its natural state is already the best medicine we can hope for.
This debate is likely to rage on for many more years. Cannabinoid medications are likely to be easier for governments and the public to accept. After all, little white pills and spray bottles are comfortably familiar to us. However, they’re costly to develop and provide. So costly that the current front running medication, Sativex, is all but impossible to access on the NHS.
The alternative vision of the future is one where medical cannabis itself – no different in its form and usage than recreational cannabis, just grown by a licensed provider – becomes a frontline medication for many conditions. This would certainly be a more bitter pill to swallow for the government; nothing like it has ever been seen. And it could open the floodgates for supporters of many other (general, less well-understood) herbal remedies to demand that the NHS provide these too.
But what debaters seemed to agree on, remarkably enough is that medications are not more effective than cannabis itself. In fact, many speakers argued that, by stripping away all but a couple of cannabis’ hundreds of potentially active ingredients, these expensive medications are far worse.
Cannabis goes corporate
The tide is turning and bringing a number of North American sharks to our shores; large, well-established cannabis businesses who are fighting furiously for dominance on the other side of the Atlantic and who are already hungrily eyeing up Europe. Any British entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on a change in cannabis policy are, sadly, likely to already be too late. When change comes, these sharks are poised to devour the market without giving anyone else a chance to grow.
The Barbican was full of the smiling name tagged reps that you’d find at any conference, handing out pens and free lunches. With softly cheesy corporate names, such as MedReleaf or 420 Advisory Management, these companies were fighting for their share of a market that, in this country, doesn’t exist yet. But there’s big money on the table now. The game has begun. Dr Henry Fisher, part of the team behind Cannabis Europa and one of the partners of the UK’s first cannabis consultancy Hanway Associates, says, “We’re rapidly seeing more companies regulating medical cannabis. This change in momentum comes partly from politicians and public seeing sense, but there’s also a lot of money involved in this industry now. That tends to convince those not yet won over by medical or social justice arguments.”
US companies have had an especially good opportunity to practice breaking into new waters quickly: as state after state has legalized medical or recreational cannabis, dispensaries and internet services have sprung up overnight to meet the new demand. Europe will be no different. The only question is where in Europe the revolution will begin. It’s not likely to be the UK, although once we see our continental neighbors relaxing policy, we’re likely to follow suit. Cannabis, in some form or another, is coming to a pharmacy near you much sooner than you think.