BlogComparing the benefits of UK-grown medical cannabis versus imported cannabis

Comparing the benefits of UK-grown medical cannabis versus imported cannabis

6 min read

Emily Ledger

Is cannabis grown in the UK

When medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in November 2018, many understandably assumed that it would be as simple to access these medications as any other prescription medicine. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this wouldn’t be the case. 

In reality, the medical cannabis supply chain in the UK is a long and complicated one - one that can lead to unreliable supply for patients - even after overcoming the hurdles of gaining a prescription. Thankfully, things are starting to change. 

We’re taking a look at the continued challenges that continue to plague the UK’s medical cannabis supply chain and the benefits of UK-grown cannabis.


Is cannabis grown in the UK?

Given the long-standing prohibition of cannabis in the UK, you would be forgiven for believing that medical cannabis cultivation is a relatively new part of our agricultural sector. However, even before the landmark 2018 legalisation of cannabis-based medicines, the UK had consistently ranked among the world’s top exporters of medical cannabis. So, how much cannabis is grown in the UK?

In 2021, the UK produced 329 tonnes of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. The majority of this total (213 tonnes) was exported - more than half of the reported world total. Yet, we import the vast majority of our prescribed cannabis products.

But if there is so much medicinal cannabis grown in the UK, why is this?

Why does the UK import medical cannabis?

While medical cannabis has now been legal in the UK for almost six years, only three products are licensed for prescription: Sativex (nabiximols - a THC:CBD oromucosal spray prescribed for multiple sclerosis) and Epidiolex (a CBD-based medicine prescribed for some forms of treatment-resistant epilepsy), and Nabilone (a synthetic cannabinoid designed to mimic THC, prescribed for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting).

However, these products only make up a small fraction of the medical cannabis prescribed in the UK. In fact, Sativex represents almost all of the UK’s exported medical cannabis. This leaves a huge gap in the domestic UK cannabis market - one that has typically been filled by unlicensed cannabis products (“specials”) that are imported from other countries. 

What are the complications of importing medical cannabis?

This arrangement may sound simple enough; however, importing unlicensed “specials” is tightly regulated with companies required to apply for a Home Office license. Moreover, licenses are only valid for 30 days, and each new shipment requires a new license. 

This, coupled with the fact that patients with a prescription for unlicensed medicinal cannabis products are required to have their prescription reviewed every 30 days, can lead to significant delays in receiving their medications. 

While the government introduced new rules in March 2020, allowing licensed wholesalers to import larger quantities of cannabis-based products and hold supplies for future use by patients with prescriptions, disruption to the medical cannabis supply chain remains a common problem in the UK.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that there are only a limited number of international manufacturers and suppliers of medical cannabis flowers and oils. This can mean that there simply isn’t enough supply to meet demand and, as a result, patients in some instances may be told their preferred cannabis product is unavailable. 

Nearly 24 tonnes of medical cannabis was imported to the UK in the first nine months of 2023. This was almost three times more than was imported in the whole of 2022. Yet, supply is still struggling to keep up with demand. Thankfully, UK-grown medical cannabis could offer a solution - as demonstrated by our recent partnership with Glass Pharms®.

Releaf and Glass Pharms - A UK supply chain

We recently unveiled our partnership with UK-based, Home Office-approved, and MHRA-regulated, legal medical cannabis cultivator, Glass Pharms. This means that, for the first time, patients in the UK will have access to medical cannabis flower products grown here in the UK - an arrangement that ensures a continual supply chain that doesn’t rely on unpredictable imports. 

This first-of-its-kind partnership allows us to offer a range of six medical cannabis cultivars that are not available anywhere else. Having conducted immense research and development, these products are suitable for treating a wide range of symptoms. But there are many other benefits to sourcing medical cannabis from the UK.

Comparing imported and UK-grown medical cannabis

Medical Cannabis Product Availability

As mentioned, such high (and ever-growing) global demand for medical cannabis products can often cause a backlog of orders - a problem that is exacerbated by import regulations. Having a domestic supply chain can help eradicate many of these problems, resulting in increased product availability. 

A more sustainable option

Sourcing medical cannabis here in the UK is also a more sustainable option. As Glass Pharms produces its cultivars and sources its packaging (which contains no single-use plastic!) from the UK, the finished products have zero air miles. In comparison, imported medical cannabis products are routinely sent from as far away as Australia.

The company is also taking major steps to ensure a green operation that is better for the environment than typical cultivation. Having invested in sustainable technology, Glass Pharms’ innovative cultivation environment uses recycled rainwater, and about 40% of the power compared to traditional indoor growing facilities. This has helped to make the company carbon-negative. 

A boost to the economy

It has been estimated that the UK’s medical cannabis industry could be worth around £1 billion. By 2028, this figure has been predicted to rise to £8.8 billion, which would make the UK Europe’s second-largest medical cannabis market. 

Creating a domestic medical cannabis supply chain could be crucial in achieving these figures, creating potentially thousands of jobs in the process. The lack of import costs could even help to make medical cannabis cheaper and more accessible. 

Final thoughts

Medical cannabis is becoming increasingly accessible in the UK. As patient demand continues to grow, it has become increasingly clear that the international supply chain can be unreliable, leaving patients without a consistent supply of medication. 

Creating a domestic supply of medical cannabis can help to mitigate these issues. 

Releaf is the first medical cannabis clinic in the UK to offer UK-grown medical cannabis cultivars to its patients. We are thrilled to offer six Releaf-branded cannabis cultivars that are suitable for a wide range of symptoms - and to support Glass Pharms in its mission to meet patient demand for a dependable supply of high-quality, UK-produced, cannabis-based medicines at a fair price.

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.

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Emily, an accomplished content writer with a specialisation in cannabis and alternative health, leverages her five years in the sector to enhance education and diminish stigma around medicinal cannabis use.

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.

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Join the conversation with MS-UK and Releaf: Medical cannabis for Multiple Sclerosis webinar

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018 for patients with health conditions known to respond to cannabis-based treatments, if conventional or licensed medications have failed to meet their needs. Because one of these health conditions is Multiple Sclerosis, Releaf are joining MS-UK for a free Webinar on the 21st of August, to explain how these treatments can be safely incorporated into MS treatment plans.

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