AVIDA Global has big dreams—they want to sell their medicinal cannabis to pharmaceutical companies throughout Europe and beyond, where it’ll be used to treat pain relief, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and dietary problems.
Backed by a UK peer Lord Mancroft, the company has an 100 acre farm in Colombia to grow the plant on, they’re in talks with pharmaceutical companies and they’ve just secured £1.6m more funding to make it happen.
There is only one problem. Even though laws around medicinal cannabis continue to loosen, in many countries very few doctors prescribe the drug.
This is a particular concern in the UK, which is not only where AVIDA Global is from but also what it hopes to be one of its core markets.
“Even though it’s now legal in the UK, doctors still aren’t prescribing it,” says David Kirby, the chief executive of AVIDA Global. “They don’t understand it, they’re not trained about it.”
Cannabis was legalised in 2018 in the UK, but there have been no prescriptions since then on the UK’s state health service. That’s in contrast to other countries, like Israel, Spain, Germany, and some US states, who are more receptive to the drug. In Israel, for example, 60,000 individuals currently have medicinal cannabis prescriptions.
Experts say that the industry is coming up against long-standing cultural barriers as well as educational ones.
Dr Mikael Sodergren, a doctor from Sapphire Medical clinics, believes that the UK’s state health sector stigmatises the drug. “Due to the socio-political landscape of Western society there has been a great reluctance to embrace any new findings in relation to drugs also used for recreational use, such as cannabis,” he says.
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There are some places to get the drug though. Despite the lack of prescriptions in the UK’s state sector, there are four private clinics in the country, of which Sapphire is one, working with medicinal cannabis and 2,000 people currently receive private prescriptions. The majority of those are for pain relief, followed by anxiety.
And some say attitudes are changing fast.
Professor Mike Barnes, from the Medical Cannabis Clinicians society, was the first doctor in the UK to prescribe cannabis. He says that private clinics are seeing a 30% increase in prescriptions each month at the moment and he believes the NHS will follow the private sector’s example.
“It’s here to stay,” says Barnes, “fifty countries have legalised medicinal cannabis, and the NHS will pick up, it’s unstoppable.”
That should come as a relief to companies like AVIDA supplying cannabis to pharmaceutical companies.
At the moment, a cannabis pain relief prescription costs about £300 to £400 a month. Having more startups in the market would help bring the cost down, Barnes says. “I’d love to see more startups here in the UK working on it. Cannabis is a very personal product and we need young, nimble companies who can produce products that suit different people.”
“And we really don’t want to see the emergence of big-cannabis, who would produce bland products,” Barnes says, which is something he believes is already starting to happen.
AVIDA Global’s Kirby explains that there are huge differences in quality between some of the cannabis reaching the market, and that’s something medical companies have to take into account. The company’s Colombian farm is on the equator, which provides the best conditions for the plant, he says.
“Quality really matters,” explains Kirby. “Cannabis picks up anything in the ground around it, from heavy metals to pesticide residue.” AVIDA Global grows their cannabis in coconut substrate so the plants can’t absorb anything harmful from the soil around them, and its purity is checked on site to ensure its pharmaceutical grade.
Kirby believes the industry in Europe will expand, just as it has done in America and Canada already. “More and more clinicians are being trained,” he says. “The reluctance to prescribe simply comes from a lack of understanding.”