Factsheet: cannabis for medicinal use
Classification and scheduling of cannabis
- Cannabis is classified as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, based on a harms assessment. This classification dictates the penalties for committing offences with the drug such as possession and intent to supply, and used to prioritise the law enforcement response. The classification of the drug is entirely separate from its scheduling.
- The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 provides the legal framework for access to controlled drugs for legitimate purposes. Cannabis is a broad term to describe organic products (e.g. marijuana and hemp) that contain amongst other chemicals, CBD and THC. THC is the principal psychoactive component of cannabis. Raw cannabis and THC are controlled as Schedule 1 drugs as there is currently no recognised medicinal or therapeutic benefit in the UK.
- Under Home Office policy, the production, supply and possession of raw cannabis is only permitted for research purposes under a Home Office licence.
- There are cannabis-based medicinal products which are currently available in the UK. ‘Sativex’, which contains both CBD and THC, is listed as a Schedule 4 drug and has received marketing authorisation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for the treatment of spasticity due to multiple sclerosis. This means that it has been rigorously tested for its efficacy and safety. ‘Epidiolex’ is currently going through the process of authorisation and is under assessment by the European Medicines Agency for the treatment of childhood epilepsy. It contains almost entirely CBD and is therefore exempt from scheduling regulations.
- The process for obtaining a licence to administer controlled cannabis-based medicinal products is designed to ensure that any application is based on robust medical evidence and that the necessary safeguards are in place to ensure patient safety. As such, any application must be led by a senior clinician responsible for the individual’s care, with the backing of a NHS Trust, and must pass the necessary DBS checks and compliance visits. Only once all these standards have been met, can the Home Office then make an informed decision as to whether to issue a licence. The usual timeframe for processing a completed licence application is 12-16 weeks.
- Further licences would need to be obtained in order to import, export and manufacture a controlled drug.
- Fees are payable for the cost of issuing a licence and these are levied in accordance with the published fee levels.
- In exceptional circumstances and where a senior clinician has advised that it is a medical emergency, the Home Secretary has the power to grant a short-term Schedule 1 licence outside of normal process. Up until this past weekend, this power had not been used in an individual case outside of a clinical trial or research purposes. Decisions over the length of time emergency licences are granted for are taken on a case by case basis and based on medical advice.
- The Policing Minister announced on 18 June that the Government has asked the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davis to establish an expert panel of clinicians to advise Ministers on any individual applications to prescribe cannabis based medicines.
Licensing process - Northern Ireland
- Domestic drug licensing decisions in Northern Ireland are devolved and any applications would be considered by the Department of Health Northern Ireland.
- In the case of import or export licensing, the Home Office discharges this function for Northern Ireland and is the appropriate issuing authority for the UK.
- The Government works closely with Northern Ireland to make sure we act as consistently as we can across the UK.