As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Victoria Atkins has a responsibility to tens of thousands of medical cannabis patients in the UK, to ensure they receive the best possible access to quality healthcare services.
However, it was recently announced that the Conservative politician would recuse herself from speaking, or deciding, on any matters relating to cannabis and sugar. This is due to her marriage to Paul Kenward, CEO of ABF Sugar, who own a 23-acre site producing medicinal cannabis in Norfolk, which is run by their subsidiary business British Sugar.
The conflict of interest in these areas is not a recent development, and Atkins has come under fire from the press for these personal ties previously during her political career.
Nonetheless, Victoria Atkins was appointed the new Health Secretary on the 13th of November 2023, and is now head of the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), making her completely responsible for NHS finances, delivery, and performance.
It has been said that to ensure discussions and decisions surrounding medical cannabis licensing, cultivation, medication manufacturing, and NHS prescription remain impartial, fellow members of the DHSC will take the lead on cannabis related matters.
According to iNews, it's likely that this role will be assumed by either Andrea Leadsom, who is the new Parliamentary Undersecretary of State in the DHSC, or The Minister of State for the DHSC, Andrew Stephenson.
Medical cannabis matters: Availability
At the moment, mainstream media seems to be focused on what this will mean for the overwhelming, and ever-increasing, obesity crisis facing the UK, and not many mention the possible impacts on medical cannabis patients.
Although sources like the BBC have praised Atkins for having an ‘independent mind’ and noted her vote in favour of the sugar tax, many in the medical cannabis space don’t share the same faith.
Prior to its medical legalisation in 2018, Victoria Atkins was vocal in her opposition to the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, and many fear her views have not changed - despite its financial contributions to her household.
Currently, NHS access to licensed cannabis-based medicines is extremely limited and rare, and in most cases these medicines are privately funded by patients or their family, costing them thousands of pounds every month.
In 2019, the National Institute of Care Excellence recommended two licensed cannabis-based medicines should be eligible for reimbursement on the NHS, namely Epidyolex and Sativex. In reality, however, this is seldom achieved.
Both medicines are produced by Jazz Pharmaceuticals. Epidyolex, which is usually the first cannabis-based medicine practitioners consider when prescribing to treat rare or severe types of treatment-resistant epilepsy, is manufactured using the cannabis grown by British Sugar.
Earlier this year in February, NICE went on to further recommend Epidyolex as an adjunctive treatment for patients with tuberous sclerosis complex, as well as those with Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome on the NHS.
Because Victoria Atkins’ husband has a personal, and financial, interest in the success and prescription of Epidyolex through his connection with British Sugar, there are fears that this could hinder the promotion of alternative cannabis-based medicines or products eligible for NHS prescription and/or reimbursement in the near future.
Medical cannabis matters: Accessibility
It is estimated that around 32,000 people in the UK hold a medical cannabis prescription for either unlicensed or licensed products, and a further 1.8 million self-medicate with cannabis - so clearly, cannabis should be a big topic in healthcare.
However, in reality over the last five years, very little progress has been made to widen accessibility to cannabis based treatments and improve education and awareness in these areas.
That was until this summer, when the voices of advocates and campaigners were amplified by major political figures like Ronnie Cowan and Crispin Blunt, and an Early Day Motion was filed requesting the cannabis prescribing rights were expanded.
Early Day Motion: EDM 1410
The EDM proposes that GPs should be allowed to prescribe cannabis-based treatments as well as specialist doctors in the UK; to make cannabis more accessible to the masses, improve overall health, and reduce the strain felt by other overwhelmed healthcare services.
This EDM has since gathered the support of 19 MPs, and many in the industry were beginning to feel hopeful about the prospect of cannabis becoming a more popular subject within parliament, especially with regard to its medicinal and therapeutic qualities.
But now, the most powerful voice in healthcare has been silenced on any and all cannabis related matters to remove any aspect of bias. Some argue, this in turn, has the potential to remove any aspect of accessibility and availability issues being discussed in parliament at all.
A Spokesperson from the Medcan Family Foundation, who fight for access to medical cannabis options for children with complex neurological disorders, reiterated this, stating:
“The issue of access to medical cannabis is a critical issue for families battling this chronic neurological condition, and now we have a Secretary of State who cannot tackle this head on. The epilepsy community would be seeking urgent reassurances from the Government that efforts to address this issue are not going to stall because of her appointment.”
Because of this commercial link, understandably, many feel Victoria Atkins’ appointment as the new Health Secretary is inappropriate, and will leave them underrepresented within parliament, as she is unable to discuss the issues that matter most to them.
A conflict of interest timeline: Cannabis production & politics
In 2016, GW Pharmaceuticals made history when they successfully signed a contract with British Sugar, and the news broke that Britain’s largest sugar manufacturer was soon to become Britain’s largest, legal cannabis producer.
In January 2017, production of non-psychoactive cannabis began, so that its CBD contents could be extracted and manufactured into Epidyolex, a life-changing medicine used to treat severe, treatment resistant epilepsy, by GW Pharmaceuticals.
At this time, Victoria Atkins’ husband, Paul Kenward was the Managing Director of British Sugar, and several months later she secured the role as Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Safeguarding in June 2017.
As Parliamentary Undersecretary for Safeguarding, one of Victoria Atkins’ responsibilities was drug policy. In the months prior to medical cannabis legalisation in the UK, many noted this potential conflict of interest, and in May 2018 Atkins recused herself from speaking on cannabis policy because of her husband's personal, and financial, interests in this area.
In November 2018 medical cannabis was legalised in the United Kingdom for eligible patients, so long as it is prescribed by a specialist doctor registered by the GMC. Three cannabis-based medicines (Epidyolex, Sativex, and Nabilone) were licensed, granted marketing authorisation, and approved to be prescribed by the NHS in certain circumstances. GW Pharmaceuticals (now Jazz Pharmaceuticals) are the sole producers of Epidyolex and Sativex (AKA Nabiximols), and in 2021 it was revealed they made $463.6 million in product net sales from Epidyolex alone.
By July 2019 British Sugar were growing an estimated 800,000 cannabis plants per plant cycle for the pharmaceutical company, and Paul Kenward was the managing director of not only the largest sugar producer in Britain, but also the largest, legal cannabis farm.
At the time, despite publicly recusing herself from making cannabis-based decisions previously, and declaring this personal interest to Parliament, Victoria Atkins was still in charge of drugs policy.
Campaigners branded her a hypocrite, as her husband and family were profiting from the production of cannabis-based medicines, whilst the government she represented restricted access to other cannabis-based treatments that are not licensed, but are still legal.
Atkins was in a position of power, but the limitations caused by her commercial interest made many medical cannabis patients feel her role was redundant. She was unable to represent, rectify, or even acknowledge the challenges many patients were facing such as extortionate prescription costs, poor medication quality, and issues with access, awareness, and education.
A few months later, a quiet cabinet reshuffle took place. Home Office Minister of State for Policing, Crime and Fire Service, Kit Malthouse took over drug policy decisions in October 2019, whilst Atkins retained her position as Undersecretary of State for Safeguarding, where she remained until September 2021.
In February 2021, GW Pharmaceuticals was acquired by Jazz Pharmaceuticals, but their agreement with British Sugar appears to have remained intact. The British Sugar website explains that their Wissington facility is home to their ‘horticultural business’ partnership with Jazz Pharmaceuticals, and at this time Atkins’ husband was still Managing Director.
In September 2022, Paul Kenward left his position with British Sugar, and according to his LinkedIn profile, became CEO of ABF Sugar one month later, in October. The ABF Sugar Group is made up of six subsidiary operating businesses in the international sugar trade, one of which is British Sugar.
During the same month, Victoria Atkins also took on a new position; this time as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Atkins served in this role until her appointment as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the 13th of November 2023.
In the UK, senior cabinet appointments such as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care are not made by the general public; the Prime Minister makes this decision when they assemble their cabinet.
It’s not unexpected, therefore, that the appointment of a Health Secretary who cannot comment or lead on decision-making related to cannabis-based medicines, will be criticised as inappropriate.
And this feeling is shared by many medical cannabis patients, advocates, and industry members. They argue Victoria Atkins is not a suitable candidate for this role because her personal interests make continuity across healthcare policies, and fair representation for all, impossible.
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