How much medical cannabis does the UK export each year?

How much medical cannabis does the UK export each year?


With 5 years of cannabis journalism behind her after graduating from De Montfort University and writing for cannabis publications such as The Cannavist, Lucy is a dedicated journalist passionate about cannabis education and culture.

Medical cannabis will be celebrating its fifth birthday in Britain later this year, but did you know that ever since 2016, the UK has persistently ranked as the world's largest cannabis exporter?

Although it was illegal for citizens to possess or cultivate cannabis for any purpose under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, it has been reported that 95 tonnes of cannabis were legally grown and harvested by pharmaceutical companies on British soil to be exported around the world in 2016. Five years later in 2021, production rates were estimated to have risen to around 59 hectares, or 329 tonnes, over two-thirds of which was internationally exported.

So, how much cannabis does the UK export? Let’s dive into the legal landscape, global cannabis exports, and the important role our small island holds in global medical cannabis markets.

The UK’s cannabis export market and legal landscape

In 1998 GW Pharmaceuticals became the first company to successfully secure a licence from the Home Office and the Medicines and Health Regulatory Agency (MHRA), giving them permission to cultivate cannabis to investigate the plant's potential medicinal value. At the time, cannabis was still strictly illegal in the UK, but by 2003 GW Pharmaceuticals had permission to produce Sativex - a cannabis-based drug designed to treat spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis.

Due to the legal status of cannabis in the UK, the biotech company was unable to market in the same country it had been produced, so they turned to international markets, bringing Britain into the cannabis export industry. By 2011, GW Pharmaceuticals were producing around 20 tonnes of cannabis every year. By 2016, Sativex had been approved in 28 different countries, and GW Pharmaceuticals was estimated to be worth over £1.35 billion.

During 2017 and 2018, advocacy groups, politicians, and international experts appealed to the British government to reconsider their stance on medical cannabis, captivating the mass media. In 2018, it was revealed that Theresa May, who at the time was serving as the British Prime Minister, may have financially benefited from the regulation of cannabis as her husband was a major shareholder in GW Pharmaceuticals – now known as Jazz Pharmaceuticals. 

Around six months before the legalisation of medical cannabis, Transform’s Senior Policy Analyst Steve Rolles highlighted the hypocrisy in this, saying:

“It is scandalous and untenable for the UK government to maintain that cannabis has no medical uses, at the same time as licensing the world’s biggest government-approved medical cannabis production and export market”.

In June 2018, British Home Secretary Savid Javid announced that the government would review the scheduling of cannabis-related medicines and in November 2018, following recommendations from their Chief Medical Advisor, Dame Sally Davies, the British Government announced the legalisation of medical cannabis.

How much cannabis does the UK export and import?

Each year, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) conducts a report detailing the international availability of controlled substances in countries all over the world. According to their data, the United Kingdom was the largest producer of cannabis in the world, producing over 329 tonnes in 2021 alone.

Cultivation and production of cannabis in the United Kingdom from 2017-2021


37.9 hectares

258.4 tonnes


21 hectares

217.2 tonnes


34.5 hectares

350.3 tonnes


33.8 hectares

238.6 tonnes


58.9 hectares

329.1 tonnes

During 2020 it is believed that a total of 650.8 tonnes of medicinal cannabis was grown around the world, of which the largest proportion (36%) was produced in the United Kingdom. Canada secured the second spot, producing around 227.8 tonnes in 2020, whilst the Netherlands is only reported to have produced around 6 tonnes. 

In 2021, the UK continued to dominate the market and produced 43% of the cannabis that had been declared to the INCB, followed by Italy and Israel, responsible for 19.7% and 11.7% of all global medicinal cannabis production respectively.

Despite extensive cultivation on British soil, according to The UK Cannabis Report in 2019, all the cannabis-based medicines available to eligible patients in the UK had been imported from abroad. The report explains that this is because the licences approved for cannabis production in the UK ensure that the harvested plant is used in the production of licensed pharmaceuticals such as Sativex, as opposed to unlicensed forms of medical cannabis such as flowers, and so over two-thirds of the cannabis produced in 2021 was exported abroad.

In the 2023 European Cannabis Report, also conducted by Prohibition Partners, it was found that although 35.1% of cannabis extracts available in the United Kingdom were formulated or manufactured into products within the UK, the majority of these extracts were cultivated in countries like Denmark (19.6%), North Macedonia (17.5%), Australia (15.5%), and Portugal (12.4%).


Although the UK is one of the largest producers of medical cannabis in the UK, due to strict industry regulations and a lack of standards amongst unlicensed cannabis products in the UK manufacturing, the majority of its cultivated cannabis is sold to the international market and exported abroad, an operation style industry experts have described as ‘an anomaly’. 

Either way, medical cannabis is here in the UK, and it is here to stay. Medical cannabis is showing huge potential in treating a variety of conditions, and it looks like the UK is ready to take on its rightful place amongst established medical cannabis markets.

From production licences and export regulations, to domestic access points and product availability, the UK’s approach to medical cannabis is ever-evolving and so too are its players - with new companies entering the market all the time.

As the UK sets out on its journey to establishing a multi-billion pound medical cannabis industry, one thing is clear: the future for medical cannabis in the UK looks promising.

Releaf understands that medical cannabis can be life-changing for many people. That's why we offer tailored monthly packages based on your cannabis prescription, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

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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