Economics » Could cannabis be the UK’s next billion-dollar industry?

It might come as a surprise to many UK citizens to hear that the UK is already established as global player in the burgeoning legal cannabis market. After all, the products are not widely available for UK consumers to purchase, and there is little to no mention about it in public life. While much of the commercial conversation in the industry focuses on North America, the domestic discourse so far in the UK has focused on local patients, personal stories and generally a lack of infrastructure regionwide.

Yet, figures from the UN’s international Narcotics Control Board paint an almost unrecognisable picture. The figures show the UK is one of the largest legal cannabis producers in the world. If we look at 2016 for example, the UK’s production of legal cannabis doubled to a massive 95 tonnes. To put figure in context, it meant the UK was responsible for growing nearly half of the world’s legal cannabis that year (44.9%) The following year, the UK was then responsible for 69% of global legal cannabis exports, with the majority going directly to the US. Behind the scenes, the UK has been quietly busy becoming one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of medical cannabis.

Since 2000, political developments and mainstream discourse have been changing around cannabis, with more and more European countries developing medical programmes and establishing prosperous industries in the process., According to figures from consultancy firm Prohibition Partners, the European cannabis market could be worth in excess of £100bn by 2028. That’s more than twice the revenues that Apple reported in the region last year.

Progress has certainly picked up speed in the last year. In November 2018, and much sooner than many analysts had anticipated, the Home Office introduced new legislation which made medical cannabis legal. This was after pressure from campaigns of brave patients like Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell who helped make history, with Dingley receiving the first legal cannabis prescription in the country. In the wake of this, ECH has now opened the first medical cannabis clinics in the UK to assist patients with chronic conditions, with two more due to open before the end of the year in Birmingham and London.

Changing attitudes

From an investment perspective, the positive domestic media attention, a growing global shift in attitudes and an increasing number of countries moving towards legalisation of medical cannabis – have now opened the door for a few UK cannabis companies to float on London’s public exchanges. Already attracting buoyant backing from fund managers, institutional investors and more recently state investment funds.

Navigating the cannabis market does have its complexities. High street stockists, such as Holland and Barrett, have already been successful in promoting CBD ranges to boost sales, as consumers have shown a sky-rocketing interest in CBD products, from lip balms to snack bars. But it’s still the case the CBD market remains in a legal grey area, with regulators playing catch up to the innovation of the private sector.

On May 18th, global players in the market will be descending on London discussing these developments at the Women, CBD & Medical Cannabis Conference at the Hilton London Paddington Hotel. An interesting aspect of working in such a new industry is how particularly ascendant it has been for women. This is for two main reasons – firstly because this industry really tries to understand female consumers, a consumer demographic that virtually doubled in size in the US in 2018.

Secondly, because forming a new industry has meant leaders have adopted practices around sustainability and equal opportunities at the core of their businesses. It’s why female empowerment in the fast-emerging global medical cannabis business has become a big theme in 2019, and why the number of women in leadership positions continues to consistently outstrip the national average.

As Britain’s medical cannabis regulations undergo further reform, companies will be recruiting ambitious, career-minded women in huge numbers and the opportunity is only going to get larger. Recently, there have been calls in the European Parliament to create a regionwide resolution on medical cannabis while the United Nations has released positive findings from studies on both CBD and THC. It’s an exciting time to be in this industry – for me personally, for women, and for the UK as a whole.