EducationHow many medical cannabis patients are there in the UK?

How many medical cannabis patients are there in the UK?

14 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

How many medical cannabis patients are there in the UK?


Although medical cannabis has been legal in the UK since November 1st, 2018, the public awareness of this change in legislation is still somewhat limited.

In our June 2023 research report, we found that 16.5 million UK adults mistakenly believe medical cannabis is illegal. Only 41.5% of participants were aware that specialist doctors can legally prescribe it. Surprisingly, 34.77% still think medical cannabis is illegal, despite its legalisation over five years ago.

On top of this, there are still many misconceptions and a certain level of confusion surrounding medical cannabis, with the stigma that has been created in the century surrounding the cannabis sativa L. plant enduring, even though it has been scientifically proven to have a wide range of potential therapeutic and medical benefits.

In this write-up, we aim to simplify and answer key questions:

  • How many medical cannabis patients are currently in the UK?
  • What health concerns is medical cannabis prescribed for?
  • Are there restrictions preventing access to this potentially life-changing treatment?
  • What are the projected growth numbers for medical cannabis patients in the UK?

Current statistics on medical cannabis patients in the UK

Despite the large numbers projected for growth in the private sector when medical cannabis was first legislated, the uptake has been rather slow. It is honestly quite difficult to gauge exactly how many patients there are in the UK at any one time, as there is no register or database in place that keeps track of this information. Most predictions put the number at somewhere between 20-30,000 active patients. Predictions estimate roughly 47,000 patients could be receiving a prescription for medical cannabis by the end of 2023. 

There are a number of factors that prevent a true and live figure being given by any official body. The government has said they would not release the number due to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) reasons, although many experts suggest a number that does not reveal any personal information should not breach data protection acts in the UK or Europe.

And to make matters more confusing, some patients may switch clinics multiple times in their search for the service that meets their needs. Consequently, if clinics were to solely report their new patient numbers, there is a possibility of double-counting certain patients.

We do know is that more than 89,000 prescriptions had been signed by doctors by the end of 2022. Industry experts indicate there are approximately 1,000 new patients registering between all UK clinics every month. 

UK Medical cannabis statistics

  • Many patients are unaware that cannabis-based medical products can now be legally prescribed by doctors on the General Medical Council's Specialist Register.
  • Only a small number of patients are accessing this treatment despite its availability.
  • The NHS has denied medical cannabis prescriptions to 99% of adult patients with treatable conditions.
  • Fortunately, clinics like us here at Releaf are accepting new patients daily and can provide cannabis-based medical products (CBMPs) for various conditions as deemed appropriate by prescribing doctors still not covered by the NHS.
  • Based on data from our sample of 4,210 UK adults, around 50.2% of the population (approximately 29.6 million UK adults) have received a medical diagnosis for at least one condition that could potentially qualify them for medical cannabis-based treatments.

How many cannabis clinics are there in the UK?

The number of medical cannabis clinics in the UK is changing all the time. Currently, there are approximately 20-25 but just as new ones open, some close. Running a cannabis clinic in the UK is a complicated process tied up with the highest levels of government bureaucracy in order to ensure that it is one of the safest medical cannabis systems in the world.

Some consider that this level of regulation is hindering the growth of the sector, which is making it hard for clinics to be as successful as industry predictions suggest it could be five years into legalisation. This puts the ratio of patients to clinics at somewhere between 1000:1 – 1500:1.

Understanding the UK's legal framework for medical cannabis

Up until 2018, medical cannabis was illegal in the UK. Patients were left with very few options and often had to resort to using illegal cannabis or travelling abroad for treatment. In November 2018, the law in the UK was changed to the prescription of medical cannabis.

Recent legal changes and their impact

The law on medical cannabis allows specialist doctors on the General Medical Council to prescribe cannabis-based medicinal products to patients with a genuine clinical need. The Home Office announced a change in the law in 2018 after patients, doctors, and some politicians campaigned for access to the drug for medical purposes. The NHS remains unable to prescribe CBMP until it meets the strict criteria upheld by NICE and the MHRA, who require clinical studies proving a product's efficacy for a specific condition or set of symptoms. 

Cultivation is licenced by the Home Office and the Home Secretary, and strict regulatory measures must be met before marketing approval can be granted. 

Why is recreational cannabis illegal in the UK?

The recreational use of cannabis remains illegal in the UK due to its classification as a Class B drug, deemed to have harmful effects and potential for abuse. This classification has been hotly debated and criticized by various groups and individuals in the previous few decades, highlighting the lack of scientific evidence and disproportionate impact on marginalised communities.

However, it is important to note that even though recreational cannabis use is illegal, the law on medical cannabis is separate and allows for its use under the supervision of a specialist.

The process of receiving a medical cannabis prescription in the UK

Patients must satisfy eligibility criteria before a specialist will prescribe medical, and they will only prescribe if they believe there is a genuine need that cannot be met by another medication that is currently available. Patients may have to try two different conventional medications, treatments, or therapies without a successful outcome before they are able to receive a medical cannabis prescription.

Because the NHS will not prescribe medical cannabis in the vast majority of cases, the burden of cost is put upon the patient themselves, making it accessible to some but also potentially unaffordable to many on a basic income. Medical cannabis clinics typically charge an upfront cost for an initial appointment and charge for each product that is prescribed. There are often repeat prescription costs associated with private clinics, although some waiver this fee periodically.

Here at Releaf, we offer a subscription package that provides an extra level of care and increased value. 

Medical conditions treated with cannabis in the UK

Medical cannabis can be prescribed for a range of conditions in the UK.

Currently, the NHS is only able to prescribe CBMPs for three specific health issues – epilepsy, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea.

However, specialist doctors that are working out of a private clinic have the authority to now prescribe CBMPs for almost any condition, as long as they believe it will be beneficial to the patient. To date, here in the UK, medical cannabis has been prescribed for a huge list of conditions, including:

  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraines
  • Back pain and Sciatica
  • Cancer-related pain
  • Endometriosis
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • ADHD
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Autistic Spectrum Disorder
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Appetite Disorders
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Colitis
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Terminal cancers
  • Kidney failure
  • Epilepsy

Projected growth in the UK's medical cannabis patient numbers

Some predictions have estimated around one million people in the UK could be waiting to get it legally for a medical condition. Different cannabis clinics have conducted their own research, however, and have larger predictions. This could very much well be the case and if you look at the numbers for just a few of the medical conditions like multiple sclerosis (130k), Crohn’s disease (540k), epilepsy (633k), and arthritis (10m), all of which could potentially benefit from medical cannabis and have already been prescribed for.

Forecasting future patient trends

Based on these numbers, it's clear that there is a great potential for growth in the medical cannabis industry in the UK. Current patient-to-clinic ratios are still far from ideal. In the coming five years, the number of patients is expected to increase exponentially. The public awareness, perception, and understanding surrounding medical cannabis is shifting, and with increasing number of people seeking alternative treatment options comes more medical cannabis patient inquiries.

Comparing the UK's medical cannabis sector with global practices

UK Medical cannabis is tightly controlled, and access is limited due to the need for prescription to come from specialist consultant doctors. Despite the fact there are 80,000 out of 375,000 doctors legally capable of prescribing legal cannabis products in the UK, fewer than 200 have moved into this new sector of medicine.

The advertising of medical cannabis is subject to strict regulations, and these rules regarding what can and cannot be said pose challenges for clinics in reaching patients who are actively seeking a legal solution to their persistent health issues.

Lessons that can be learnt from other countries

  • In Germany, doctors, including family GPs, can legally prescribe cannabis-based medicines to eligible patients, leading to wider access and reduced costs. Unlike other medications, there is no requirement to try alternative treatments before considering cannabis. On top of this, German medical and healthcare insurance covers part or all of the cost, lowering patient costs significantly. Since legalization in 2017, Germany offered approximately 372,000 patients cannabis prescriptions.
  • Australia has also seen a phenomenal boom in medical cannabis uptake. The University of Sydney reports there were over 600,000 patients in 2019. Like Germany, any doctor can prescribe cannabis in Australia with approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Because CBMP are unlicensed prescriptions, they aren’t available in every pharmacy and still need to be filled by specialists. Advertising is potentially stricter than the UK rules, but it is similar in the sense that the service rather than the product is what can be promoted. 
  • The Netherlands was the first country to legalise medical cannabis and regulate the supply chain for patients through pharmacies and licenced cultivators. Even though the country pioneered the pathway, only 15,000 actively receive a prescription on a monthly basis, most people who want to buy cannabis can do so without much issue, and it is more affordable with a wider variety of products through coffee shops than through a prescription. 

Exploring the challenges in the UK's medical cannabis sector

There are a bunch of hurdles slowing the exponential growth of the medical cannabis sector in the UK. While there are certainly areas where cannabis clinics can enhance their practices, there are also barriers hindering their ability to reach the widespread awareness that prospective patients so crucially need. 

Identifying key obstacles for growth

Giving GPs greater prescribing powers would increase the number of patients who could safely and easily receive a prescription for medical cannabis. It would also lower the cost, as GP's prices are less than specialist consultants.

The eligibility criteria for prescribing an off-licence medication could be altered, making it easy for people who have a serious medical condition to be approved without having to try multiple other drugs first. The government could also make cannabis medicines available on the NHS, which would give access to everyone in the UK. 

FAQs on medical cannabis in the UK

What are the requirements for getting a medical cannabis prescription in the UK?

To obtain a medical cannabis prescription in the UK, patients must have a qualifying medical condition and receive a prescription from a specialist doctor who is registered with the General Medical Council. You must also have tried other conventional treatment options before being considered for medical cannabis.

How much does medical cannabis cost for patients in the UK?

Currently, medical cannabis is not available on the NHS for 99% of patients in the UK and must be purchased through private clinics. The cost varies depending on the clinic and type of treatment prescribed. Here at Releaf, we offer £39.99/monthly subscriptions, which include:

  • Consultation Fees
  • Repeat Prescription Charges
  • Free medication postage
  • Medical Cannabis Card
  • Releaf Treatment Starter Box - valued at £100

What are the potential benefits of medical cannabis?

Medical cannabis has shown promising results in alleviating symptoms associated with various medical conditions, including chronic pain, inflammation, sleep issues, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. It has also been used to help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and improve quality of life for cancer patients.

Concluding thoughts

So, there we have it. The UK has a huge number of potential medical cannabis patients waiting for legal access. But in comparison to other countries, the UK is still lagging behind in terms of accessibility and affordability.

However, with continued efforts from clinics and government changes, we may see a significant increase in the number of medical cannabis patients in the near future. For now, we can say that the potential for medical cannabis in the UK is immense, and it's only a matter of time before more patients can benefit from this life-changing treatment.

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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With five years of journalism and healthcare content creation under her belt, Lucy strives to improve medical cannabis awareness and access in the UK by producing high quality, credible content.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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