ResearchStatistic series: Is UK medical cannabis a cash crop?

Statistic series: Is UK medical cannabis a cash crop?

8 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

Is UK medical cannabis a cash crop?


To help get a deeper understanding of the cannabis industry, we’ve decided to uncover and unravel some of the key statistics that shape the cannabis industry in the UK. In this piece, we will explore cannabis as a ‘cash crop’ by identifying its economic impact on the UK, and analysing these figures in the political and social landscapes that shape the United Kingdom today.

We wanted to investigate the existence, and the possible effects of, the ‘green rush’ which has been taking place since the legalisation of medical cannabis. We’ve collected the top five key statistics that provide valuable insight into the economic impact of medical cannabis in the UK and have broken them down into easy, digestible chunks of information for a speedy read - to give you the basics on this flower’s financials.

In 2023, it was estimated that approximately £3.57 billion was spent by Brits self-medicating using illegally sourced cannabis.

In 2023 according to the results of a YouGov Poll conducted on behalf of Sapphire Medical Clinic, as many as 1.8 million Brits are believed to be using illicitly sourced cannabis to manage the unpleasant or debilitating symptoms they experience due to a diagnosed health condition.

These figures show a 29% increase from previous findings in 2019 and suggest that on average, these consumers are spending just under £2000 sourcing illegal cannabis to manage their health conditions every year. In total, this amounts to £3.57 billion across the UK, which is funnelled into funding other organised crimes. 

If these 1.8 million began to source their cannabis through legal means, it is believed that not only would crime rates fall, but there would be more funding within the medicinal cannabis industry. This in turn would likely lead to an increase in clinical trials and scientific research into the efficacy, quality, cost-effectiveness, and safety of cannabis-based treatments. 

When asked why they were self-medicating with black market cannabis as opposed to going through the legal access routes, 41% said they believed medicinal cannabis would be too difficult to access due to the regulatory frameworks in place. However, our latest research report, Say No To Pain, estimates that 50.2% of the UK population may be eligible for cannabis based treatment options due to their current health diagnosis.

In 2022 the cannabis-based medicine Epidyolex generated sales of over $736 million.

When trying to understand the economic impact of medical cannabis, looking at how much money is generated by the sale of just one of the licensed cannabis-based medicines is a good place to start. 

Earlier this year, Jazz Pharmaceuticals revealed its financial results from 2022 and stated they’d made approximately $736 million in global sales from their cannabis based medicine Epidyolex, which can be prescribed to children with rare and severe types of epilepsy in the UK by Specialist Doctors working for the NHS, or for a private medical cannabis clinic.  

Famous for securing the first UK licence from the Home Office and Medicines and Health Regulatory Agency to cultivate cannabis for medicinal purposes back in 1998 under their previous name GW Pharmaceuticals, Jazz Pharmaceuticals have also heavily profited from the cannabis based medicine Sativex. 

Designed to treat patients suffering with multiple sclerosis associated spasticity, Sativex was created by GW Pharmaceuticals in 2003, and had been approved for use in over 28 countries around the world by 2016. In 2011, several years before widespread legalisation of medicinal cannabis, it was reported by Reuters that GW Pharmaceuticals made around £1.9 million from the sale of Sativex in just one year alone. 

The sheer volume of sales just from these two licensed cannabis based medicines illustrates the economic importance of the medical cannabis industry, and their frequency of use strengthens arguments for its necessity within society.

In 2021 according to the INCB, the UK dominated cannabis exports, contributing 43% of all global production. 

It was reported by the International Narcotics Council Board that the United Kingdom produced a total of 329 tonnes of cannabis intended for medicinal or scientific purposes in 2021 alone. This dominated the global production rate at 43%, with Italy and Israel taking the second and third spots in cultivation quantities of 150 tonnes and 89.4 tonnes respectively.

Of the 58 hectares that were harvested in the UK, over two thirds, or 213 tonnes, were exported around the world, making the UK the largest exporter of cannabis in 2021 by a strong lead. Canada took second place, exporting a total of 87 tonnes internationally, followed by Finland with 28.3 tonnes and Portugal who took up a 3.3% share in the total export market, shipping 12.1 tonnes abroad.  

On a number of occasions, politicians, patients and industry organisations have asked the relevant authorities to reveal what financial effect this seemingly booming industry is having on the UK, but each time the Government-issued responses refute the need to investigate.

Some believe this refusal may be a self-serving move of protection, due to the intertwining interests and personal relationships between Britain's biggest medical cannabis company, now known as Jazz Pharmaceuticals, and extremely important Politicians, such as the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the Parliament Under Secretary, Victoria Atkins. 

However, without knowing the actual sale value of this exported cannabis, the true economic impact of medical cannabis is troublesome to predict. 

Interestingly in 2023, it was revealed in the European Cannabis Report that despite having such large production rates for such a small island, the majority of the cannabis extracts available to medical cannabis patients in the UK are actually cultivated in other countries. 

With the majority of these extracts cultivated in Denmark, North Macedonia, Austria and Portugal and then manufactured into cannabis-based products after being imported to the UK, it would also be interesting to know how much the UK spends on importing the same kind of goods that it actively exports in such high volumes. 

According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) the UK has produced the above amount of cannabis.

Although the amount of cannabis that is produced and exported by each nation is recorded each year by the International Narcotics Control Board, the INCB fail to indicate how much these drugs are actually worth. And so, to gauge the approximate value of this produced plant matter, we’ve estimated how much these quantities of legally grown cannabis would be worth if they were sold on the UK's black market. 

We know that in the UK, law enforcement calculate the ‘street value’ of cannabis using a range of intel from their Drug Experts, paid informants, interviews, and seized mobile phones. The value of cannabis can vary slightly from city to city in the UK, but according to a WeedIndex study, typically an ounce of cannabis would cost between £180 and £200 on the black market. 

With this information in mind, and taking into account that there are just over 35 ounces in a kilogram, we discovered that if the quantity of cannabis that was legally produced by the UK in 2021 was sold at black market prices, it would approximately generate between £2.09 billion and £2.32 billion in revenue. 

Using this formula, we’ve estimated that for five years, the UK has consistently produced quantities of cannabis that would generate upwards of £1.38 billion if it was sold at ‘street value’. This reached a peak in 2019, when the UK produced over 34 hectares, or over 12 million ounces, of cannabis - which holds an estimated street value of between £2.2 billion and £2.5 billion.

Because the true economic value of these cannabis quantities has not been declared, it is unclear exactly how much the UK actually profits from its sale and exportation and these calculations are merely educated estimations. It is likely that these figures will not be as high in reality, as illicit drugs tend to be more ‘expensive’ than those that are grown and sold legally because of the risks involved in their production and procurement.

The UK's cannabis industry was predicted to be worth up to £2.31 billion by 2024, which could create over 96,000 jobs.

Each year, Prohibition Partners conduct an in-depth analysis of the cannabis markets across Europe to discover the latest data, trends, and obstacles that occur in this developing industry. In their UK Cannabis Report from December 2019, Prohibition Partners estimated that the UK's medical cannabis industry could potentially be worth up to £1 billion by next year. 

However, the report went on further to suggest that if the UK legalised cannabis completely in 2021, the entire cannabis market could be worth up to £2.31billion by 2024. According to their estimates, this would generate around 96,000 employment opportunities for the UK residents, and between £1 billion and £3.5 billion every year in tax revenue alone.

Although cannabis remains illegal unless prescribed by a Specialist Doctor, reports like this suggest a legal cannabis market could have the potential to resolve some of the economic and employment troubles faced by thousands in post-pandemic Britain. 

However, drug reform decisions should not be based on financial reasoning, and many have concerns that legalising cannabis for recreational purposes could lead to a higher rate of drug misuse, dependence, and harm to health. At present, the government appears to have no plans to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. 

For now, it is unclear what economic impact a completely legalised cannabis market would have on the UK, and the Government remain hesitant to release the full figures regarding the medical cannabis industry, meaning we have to rely on expert estimations such as those conducted by Prohibition Partners.

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.

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