Blog1.8 million Brits buy backstreet cannabis for medicinal purposes

1.8 million Brits buy backstreet cannabis for medicinal purposes

5 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

1.8 million Brits buy backstreet cannabis for medicinal purposes
Recent reports suggest that despite being available through legal avenues, as many as 1.8 million people in the UK are still illegally sourcing cannabis for health based reasons, and are self-medicating with illegal cannabis. 


Although the medical use of cannabis was legalised in the UK five years ago in November 2018, public knowledge of medical cannabis legislation, and awareness of medical cannabis’ availability in the UK is severely limited. 

Due to this lack of awareness, there are a lot of misconceptions that surround private sector cannabis prescriptions and perceived challenges to accessing medical cannabis legally, most of which centre around the cost of medical cannabis in the UK. 

Because of this, around 1.8 million people in the UK who have a legitimate reason or ‘need’ to purchase cannabis, are doing so from the black market, as opposed to from a licensed pharmacy, and so, often unintentionally fund further criminal activities

Illegal Cannabis Usage Statistics: Backstreet Bud

The estimation that 1.8 million Brits are sourcing backstreet bud for medical purposes comes from data published by The Sapphire Medical Clinic in March 2023, who conducted a YouGov survey of the general population last October. 

Their findings also suggest that 52% of UK adults have been diagnosed with a health condition that may be suitable for cannabis-based treatments, but less than half of these - or 24% - are aware that cannabis-based products can be legally prescribed. 

Data like this demonstrates just how widespread the lack of understanding and awareness of medical cannabis in the UK actually is. 

How much money is spent on illegal cannabis in the UK? 

Of the 1.8 million people believed to be buying cannabis illegally, it was found those who were using cannabis to self-medicate and treat their chronic pain were spending around £156 a month on average, which equates to £1,872 each year.

In total, it is estimated that those self-medicating with illegally obtained cannabis  contribute around £3.57 billion to the underground, illegal economies each year in the UK alone. 

If medical cannabis is legal in the UK, why are people purchasing it illegally?

This survey asked why people purchased medical cannabis illicitly when it is available legally for the same purpose. The findings show 41% predicted there would be too many difficulties in accessing medical cannabis through legal means, and 29% assumed medical cannabis in the UK would be too expensive to access through legal suppliers.

However, in fact, legal medical cannabis has to be produced under strict standard operating procedures and meet quality, efficacy, and standard requirements before being placed on the market. This ensures that the cannabis produced is not only effective in treating or managing patient symptoms, but is also a cost-effective treatment plan for patients. 

Legal Cannabis Usage Statistics: Accessibility and Availability

Although medical cannabis was legalised half a decade ago in 2018, the legal market for cannabis-based products is still dramatically dwarfed by its illicit counterpart, and the exact figures of how many people access medical cannabis legally in the UK are still unknown. 

Back in January 2023 John Spellar, the Labour MP for Warley, submitted a request into the House of Commons, asking the government to clarify the availability of legal cannabis-based medicines in the UK. 

It read:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, how many prescriptions for cannabis-based medicines have been issued since those prescriptions became legal?” 

The reply stated that due to GDPR regulations, The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) is unable to disclose how many unlicensed cannabis-based medicines have been prescribed by the NHS.

However, they were able to reveal that 89,239 prescriptions for the same kind of medications were issued by specialists working in the private sector between November 2018 and October 2022. 

During that same time frame 11,976 prescriptions were issued by the NHS for licensed cannabis-based medicines. 

Later, in June 2023, a parliamentary report stated around 20,000 people in the UK hold a valid and legal prescription for cannabis-based products or medicinal cannabis with private medical cannabis clinics, and a further 1,000 are in receipt of NHS cannabis prescriptions. 

However, in comparison to 1.8 million, these figures are still miniscule. 


In conclusion, despite its legalisation, a significant proportion of the population continues to rely on illegal sources for their medical cannabis. This is largely due to misconceptions and a lack of awarenesses of cannabis legislation and accessibility options. 

The statistics and insights gathered from this report, alongside many others, underscore the urgent need for increased public education surrounding the legal avenues that can be used to access medical cannabis. 

This report also highlights the economic impact that the illegal cannabis market has on the UK’s economy and emphasises the importance of redirecting consumers to legal, regulated channels that will ensure patient safety, and medication quality and efficacy. 

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

Elevate your wellness with medical cannabis

Get comprehensive care, convenience, and confidence with an all-in-one treatment plan.

Check your eligibility

With five years of journalism and healthcare content creation under her belt, Lucy strives to improve medical cannabis awareness and access in the UK by producing high quality, credible content.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

Published at:

Further reading

Medical cannabis and hayfever - friend or foe?

Longer days, lush green leaves—and a streaming nose; all sure-fire signs that spring is finally here in abundance. But is your medical cannabis prescription a help or a hindrance?

Sarah Sinclair

Experts, insights, and experiences: Medical cannabis and mental health

Mental health is something that affects everyone, it’s something each individual in society has - all year round. But, this week, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Between the 13th and 19th of May, an extra effort is made to discuss the importance of mental health and how we can take care of it. And we wanted to join suit.

Lucy MacKinnon

Update on Ukraine: legalising medical cannabis, one by law at a time

Ukraine’s President signed off on Law 3528-IX, also known as The Medical Cannabis Law, back in February. This kickstarted the legalisation of medical cannabis, designed to offer relief to those suffering from conditions like chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the continued war with Russia. Here we take a look at some of the updates and amendments that have been made to accommodate for the legalisation of medical cannabis in Ukraine.

Lucy MacKinnon