The cannabis industry is estimated to be worth $20bn in the US alone by 2020 © FT Montage/Dreamstime
Industry conventions rarely feel the need to display large signs warning attendees to refrain from smoking pot.
But CannaTech, London’s first medical marijuana conference, was in the unusual position of offering a “full immersion experience” in a product that in the UK can only be prescribed in the most limited circumstances.
Its proponents argue that the industry is a multibillion-dollar business opportunity, estimated to be worth $20bn in the US alone by 2020, and the 200 seats at one of the conference’s events on Wednesday evening sold out fast.
The atmosphere vaguely resembled a speed-dating event, as companies and financiers bonded over bottled beers and tentatively discussed future partnerships.
Saul Kaye, who founded CannaTech, which has held events in Sydney and Tel Aviv, said there was proven appetite among UK investors to learn more about the developing industry.
A woman works on marijuana plants at the Breath of Life Pharma greenhouse in Israel’s second-largest medical cannabis plantation © AFP
His company, iCan, develops cannabis-based formulations, clinical trials and cannabis testing, and Mr Kaye said he also hoped that coming to London would help to “kick the conversation along” with the health industry and regulators to open up the UK market.
“If you look at all the Commonwealth countries — Australia, Canada, South Africa, India — they’re all moving ahead with cannabis policy and the Queen’s country is left behind,” he said.
Campaigners call for cannabis to be legalised in New Zealand. Australia, Canada, South Africa and India have all taken steps in that direction, according to Saul Kaye © Getty Images
Among the attendees keen to discover more was Simon Heywood, of Ruffena Capital, whose clients range from fund managers to wealthy individuals.
“I see there is a bit of noise and commotion around this scene and I’m told that a lot of money is changing hands . . . I think there is going to be some projects emerging from this that are going to be interesting to our investor register,” he said.
But he added: “There needs to be some clarity and certainty around the legislation surrounding this.”
Worldwide, there is still only one approved medical cannabis drug on the market — Sativex — produced by GW, a UK-based company.
Israel offers a glimpse of the industry’s potential, Mr Kaye said. “We’re federally legal; we have a programme . . . You’ll go to your doctor, and you’ll get a prescription, and you’ll go to your pharmacy, and you’ll buy medication just like you do with all your other medications. So, we’re normalising cannabis.”
The UK medicines regulator, the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said that when looking at a medical cannabis product, “the evidence of quality, safety, efficacy and for an overall positive balance of risk and benefit in the claimed indications will be considered in the same way as for other applications for medicinal products. Relevant licensing requirements of the Home Office will also need to be complied with.”
Internationally as well there is still a long way to go before medical cannabis enters the healthcare mainstream, especially in one huge potential market: the US. Some 29 US states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes but at a federal level it is still illegal.
A cannabis ‘Tea Party’ organised by the United Patients Alliance outside Parliament calls for legalisation of the drug for people suffering from chronic pain conditions earlier this month © AFP
As a result, he said, companies involved “operate in this grey area even though they’re legal, and in terms of finance, for example, it’s a cash-only business. You can’t use credit cards. They have a massive problem with storing cash,” he adds.
But William Levine, chief executive of US-based CannRx whose company hopes to bring its first cannabis-based drug — to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting — to market in 2019 said that the market opportunity did not depend on any other countries legalising the product.
“The market is enormous already — this train has left the station. Even if nobody else approves it this is an enormous market opportunity, which is projected to grow way past coffee and tea,” he said.
Many large pharma companies were now figuring out how to get into the business, he added. “None of our projects in-house are depending on a change in regulations — we’re very strict about that from a business model perspective. But we get calls all the time from pharma industry [executives] who want to be in the game in a scientific way . . . and we’re in discussions with a number of them.”
Roby Zomer, chief executive of MGC Pharmaceuticals, which has its headquarters in Australia, said his company was developing several products to treat neurological disorders, including epilepsy; the side effects of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation; and autoimmune diseases. Shares in MCG have risen almost 57 per cent in the past year.
For Mr Kaye, the stigma that still hovers over the medical cannabis business is deeply unfair, driven by a lack of understanding and its uncertain legal status.
“At the end of the day, it’s an incredibly safe agricultural product. It should really just be like lettuce; it’s a superfood. If you want to eat it, eat it. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it,” he said.