INTERVIEW: CMC’s Moore Weighs in on the U.K.’s Legal Cannabis Industry

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Anticipating what he describes as the United Kingdom’s “first detailed blueprint setting out how the U.K. can fast-track its way to become the global leader in cannabinoid innovation,” Steve Moore is a reluctant optimist.

As much as he touts the U.K.’s potential to become a world leader in cannabis R&D and innovation – “We have already had a huge influence on the global cannabinoid market, including the most successful medical cannabis company in history in GW Pharmaceuticals, and could now lead the world by being the first to properly regulate CBD – he tempers his enthusiasm by criticism of “disjointed” policies lacking federal advocacy for “pipe dreamers” making ridiculous claims.

A cofounder of the U.K.’s Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC), the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI), and the First November Group, Moore recently announced the Hodges Review – a commission led by Christopher Hodges (Emeritus Professor of Justice Systems of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford) to  assess public policy relating to the UK’s cannabis industry. Due for a May release, the review will proffer an industrywide assessment of regulations and public policy relating to the UK’s legal cannabis industry.

Hodges Review Due in May

“It’s long overdue”, says Moore. “This nascent industry requires regulatory attention, as it has been developed by activists – including myself – meaning that it’s very disjointed from a public policy perspective.”

The expectation is that Hodges – who is establishing himself inside Whitehall (i.e., the British government) as an increasingly influential thinker regarding new approaches to regulation – will nudge policymakers like George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation.

“So, Prof. Hodges is looking at how we could work more effectively, to help the U.K. become a world leader in cannabis R&D and innovation,” Moore added. “We have already had a huge influence on the global cannabinoid market – including the most successful medical cannabis company in history in GW Pharma – and could now lead the world by being the first to properly regulate CBD.”

Political Momentum Is Lacking

Moore claims to represent three platforms: medical CMC, the CBD-focussed ACI, and the First November group for professional services, companies, investors, and companies. CMC and ACI helped with the lifting of import restrictions for medicinal cannabis, and the new Food Standards Agency CBD regulations put into effect last year.

“But there’s still a long way to go,” Moore admits. “I am always conservative in terms of how I see the market growing here, and there’s a lot of evidence that the U.K. system won’t make concessions. There are no political incentives. Adult use is nowhere close to being the case, as the key political parties are committed to reducing public consumption of temptation goods, and there’s a lack of advocacy at government level.”

He says that while Minister Freeman is broadly sympathetic, the British government is not making a compelling case on behalf of the industry, despite GW Pharmaceuticals’ successfully producing licenced medicines since the 1990s.

“On the other side, there are a lot of pipe dreamers in the industry, fuelling an investment bubble with ridiculous claims as to how big the market will be, which isn’t borne out by reality”, Moore said.

“Take medical cannabis,” he continued. “The case of Billy Caldwell was important. His mother Charlotte broke the doors down with her ferocity and since then the medical focus has been how to deal with epileptic kids. But most British people are treated by the [National Health Service] that writes about 97% of all prescriptions in the U.K. There simply is not a great public clamour for the NHS to prescribe unlicenced medicines – and most people expect licenced medicines. Nor are doctors interested in experimental prescribing. We have a well-established healthcare system that’s rigorously assessed by [the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] (NICE) and a smaller private sector, but it’s difficult to even get U.K. numbers of medical cannabis patients ­– it’s probably around the 10,000-plus mark –significantly lower than Germany with over 100,000 patients and a very different prescribing culture: Doctors in Germany can prescribe spa weekends or homoeopathic medicines. There just isn’t that culture in our care system. If we show evidence of its efficacy, then we could fill the evidence gap. But this will take time.”

Moore says that while the recreational market is already working for many people – citing a resilient supply chain that accommodates about 7% of British adults consuming at least once a year – “The American issues of incarceration and racial bias don’t cut through in the same way here. Regarding London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s recent initiative to decriminalise, I’m generally sympathetic, but it was badly handled, and most people already accept that the police already blind-eye the issue.”

As for production, he continued, “I don’t think Britain is a country to choose to grow cannabis, and with cultivation sites everywhere in the world we don’t need any more, although companies investing in specific R&D like Celadon are more likely to succeed.”

Though some in the U.K. aspire to have U.S.-style dispensaries, Moore says that the U.K.’s regulatory framework does not facilitate that model, given the greater stigma still attached to cannabis which keeps the cannabis culture largely more comfortable “in the shadows” compared to North America.

No Sizzle, Just Shade

“You don’t get celebrities talking about it like in the U.S.,” Moore notes, “and there are huge concerns about mental health coming from Sir Professor Robin Murray’s research”, referring to claims linking cannabis, psychosis, and violence.

Despite recent U.K. polling finding 55% support of legalisation, Moore says that he finds no political appetite for it.

“I’ve talked to numerous home secretaries, and they all say the same thing,” he says. “Why would we increase the market for an intoxicating substance, and what’s the public benefit? It’s difficult to envisage a policy path for recreational cannabis with those attitudes, although there may be subtle ways to use taxation to incentivize healthier use and acceptability. When I worked with the government, we introduced taxation to bring beer strength down and one brand went from 5.2% to 4.8% ABV overnight. No one noticed.”

CBD Has Popularity, Potential

“For me, where the potential really exists is first in CBD and nutraceutical and then in medical R&D. The U.K. has the potential to become the world leader in product research and innovation, building on our life sciences sector. We have a strong CBD market that’s been regulated by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) since February 2020 – the first regulator in the world to secure safety approval of CBD products – and have pretty good certainty over product quality. Behind the U.S., we are the second-largest market  for CBD, and have comfortably the biggest European market. CBD is already much more mainstream here than in other countries, and there’s barely a High Street pharmacy that doesn’t stock it.”

As of the first week of April, he noted, there were 3,500 products listed by the ACI, with published findings soon due out about toxicology pending full authorization of CBD.

“That’s why I think the most exciting sector here is consumer cannabinoids,” Moore asserted. “The U.K. can lead the way, and we’ll have a massive escalation after full authorizations take out the risks. I think we’ll see three things emerge: a lot of investment; much innovation including getting beyond oils into food and drink markets; and, thirdly, the emergence of FMCG companies into the space. So, of the three key verticals – recreational, medical and consumer CBD – the latter is the most immediate growth area, akin to the omega-3 market. After that, I think the best way of making money in cannabis is to go down the licenced medicine road – but that means investing in innovation and IT on a horizon of about 10 to 15 years.”

Ultimately, Moore suggested, “there are far more people who want to get a good night’s sleep than to get high. At least 10% of British adults are consuming CBD at least once a month. Even in California you wouldn’t find that amount using cannabis edibles every week. So I think the market will grow over the next few years, and 2025 will probably be a peak for consumer CBD, coming from the margins to the mainstream with CBD in chain coffee shops, Pepsi CBD drinks, and CBD-infused beers in pubs. The final aspect is about track-and-trace, and there’s innovation here with blockchain technologies. Quality control and governance will establish basic safety profiles driven by economic necessity.”

Whether CBD will lead the recreational and medical sectors, Moore suspects that to be possible, though “I’m not sure it’ll induce a public clamour to legalise recreational cannabis, although there could be a space between wellness and palliative medicine. Lots of small innovations could become really valuable as companies start to see the economic benefit of investing in R&D and innovation.”