Legal medical cannabis isn't far off its first UK birthday, but there's not a lot to celebrate.
While the law change last November might have been a landmark moment, medicinal weed is still barely accessible: stringent criteria to qualify for access and GPs' reticence to prescribe a relatively unknown medicine means costly private prescriptions remain the most viable route for those who can afford it. At the same time, we're seeing the arrival of hundreds of CBD products proclaiming to cure everything from cancer to anxiety in dogs.
The UK weed black market, meanwhile, is valued at £2.6 billion – no surprise, given it's our favourite drug, with roughly 2.4 million people using it in England and Wales in 2017/18. Multinational companies are now circling and the conversation around weed is being largely driven by organisations with a vested interest in the UK "green rush", whenever that eventually comes.
In response, a survey aiming to be the largest poll of UK cannabis users has been launched today to discover how regular people are using weed, medical weed, CBD and cannabis social clubs in 2019. The aim: to put some knowledge and power back in the hands of the people.
"The voices of the majority of people that use cannabis, and the majority that use medically, are not really getting heard, and a government preoccupied with Brexit is paying fairly little attention to what's going on [with cannabis]," says Adam Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey (GDS), which launched the survey in conjunction with UK Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC).
"There are large corporate recreational companies and medical companies who will see the UK as a potential huge target over next five years," he continues. "Some of the people involved have overlapping interests in changing policy – for all the right reasons – but I have a sense these companies are currently running very strategic media campaigns."
Adam believes that data regarding usage should be available to ordinary users or potential users "without corporate influence", and one of the survey's vital roles will be providing a reliable information source to those considering using medically, but with limited knowledge regarding both dosage and how to dose.
"We might find that there's 2,000 people using cannabis for chronic neuropathic pain and most people are smoking," says Adam, "but we also might find the most successful reported method was taking oral doses twice a day." Adam hopes this information will allow GDS to compile guidelines for GPs to advise patients who don't qualify for a medical prescription and can't afford the reported £600 to £1,000 monthly costs of going private.
This will also extend to CBD, which the Centre for Medical Cannabis expects to grow into a £1 billion UK market by 2025, with 6 million adults having already used a CBD product. "CBD users find themselves in difficult territory," says Adam. "Companies can't make unwarranted medical claims about CBD's effectiveness because they have to go through medicine self-regulatory authority, so [to avoid doing that] they're pitching it as a wellness and beauty product. There's this window of opportunity where CBD can be sold without any medical evidence but with a huge aura of wellness."
The GDS collaboration with UKCSC aims to tap into the latter's 80,000 to 100,000-person membership. The non-profit NGO has branches across the UK and, as well as being a prominent voice in the drive for UK legalisation, has private over-18s clubs where members can consume recreationally and medically, as well as providing harm reduction information and advice for cannabis growing collectives.
Adam hopes information gleaned from the survey will help the UKCSC grow further into their role of gatekeepers – in a role similar to the American and Canadian compassion clubs that arose in the wake of medical legalisation, a small number of which also exist in the UK. "A patient could go with a letter from their GP saying they had arthritis and request advice [from UKCSC] on what to use," says Adam. "They can then make sure they get the right product for them."
Adam stresses that he's not a "naysayer doctor" – that "there's good things about weed and potential fantastic benefits for CBD" – and adds that this survey is not intended to replace rigorous scientific research, but instead to provide a pragmatic guide until it arrives, "for people using cannabis in the here and now".
Take part in the survey here. It's anonymous, confidential and hosted on an encrypted survey platform and website. It should take ten to 20 minutes, or the time it takes to smoke a joint.