Thursday 20 June 2019 10:30 am

It’s high time Britain’s fledgling cannabis industry got serious about protecting its IP

Jane Wainwright is a life sciences patent attorney at IP law firm Potter Clarkson.

Already a $10bn-plus industry, the legal cannabis business is rapidly going mainstream – and not just in Canada and the US.

You might not know it, but the UK has been steadily growing its own cannabis infrastructure for some years, with London increasingly becoming a hub for advisers and entrepreneurs looking to get on board the green rush.

What’s more, despite strict laws on medical access that have only recently begun to be relaxed, the UK actually produced some 95 tonnes of legal cannabis in 2016, making it the world’s largest exporter.

While many more established industries grapple with the continued uncertainties of Brexit, a real opportunity now exists for “UK Cannabis plc.” to flourish.

But if British businesses are serious about tapping into a market which could be worth as much as €115bn across Europe by 2028, they must heed the lessons learned from their pioneering Canadian counterparts. That means being acutely mindful of protecting their innovations from the outset.

Just as with any new market opening, when medical cannabis was legalised in Canada during the 1990s, we saw many small entrepreneurial businesses rushing to develop and sell new products. While some indeed delivered market-shaping inventions that endure to this day, many more found themselves falling way short on the fundamentals of IP, allowing larger corporates to rush in and take advantage.

Their UK and international counterparts are now very much positioned to do similarly as the market starts to open up here.

One of the strongest ways any business can protect its innovations is through patent protection, and the cannabis industry is no different. Indeed, there are already many patentable products and processes surrounding the substance – from novel or modified ingredients extracted from the cannabis plant and new ways of using cannabis products, to improved cultivation techniques and end-user consumption technology.

Novel cannabis plant varieties, of which there are many, can also be protected in certain circumstances.

Regardless of their propositions, UK businesses need to recognise the international nature of the industry.

Taking Canada again as an example, there are now 90 publicly listed cannabis-related companies with a market value of about CA$31bn, but the top three filers of patents there are Swiss, US and British businesses.

Time is also of the essence. The cannabis industry is a hugely dynamic space with international players already making moves in the UK. Only last December, the world’s largest cannabis company, Canadian producer Canopy Growth, announced that it was establishing a UK subsidiary, Spectrum Biomedical, to supply British pharmacies.

Such players know only too well the value of IP and the potential of the UK market.

Whether the UK ends up following Canada’s lead on legalising the recreational usage of cannabis of course remains to be seen – and likely depends on whoever becomes the next Prime Minister.

Even if this does not happen, however, as the fledgling British medical cannabis industry establishes stronger roots, protecting its innovations is only going to become more important.

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