The UK and Medical Cannabis

By Published On: September 26th, 2023Categories: Cannabis, Health

The history of cannabis for medical use precedes its more commonly known recreational use. In fact, plant based medicine was our only form of medicine up until the 1930’s. Yet medical cannabis was only legalised in the UK in November 2018, far behind numerous other countries such as America, Canada, Holland, Switzerland and Costa Rica to name just a few.

However, to access medical cannabis, most patients must look to private healthcare, the rest look to illegal markets. But why is the NHS not prescribing medical cannabis? We take a look at some of the facts as specified by Professor Mike Barnes, Neurologist, Chairman of The Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society and part of Maple Tree the Global Medical Cannabis Experts.

The story of the legalisation of medical cannabis in the UK begins in 2018 when Alfie Dingley, aged 7, suffered from a rare form of epilepsy which caused him to have between 200-400 seizures a week. After trying numerous treatments, the family decided to go to Holland to access medical cannabis to see whether this would help manage his ferocious seizures.

After taking medical cannabis, Alfie’s seizures significantly declined.

When the family came back to the UK, his medical cannabis was confiscated due to UK law and the family, alongside Professor Mike Barnes, decided to campaign to have it legalised.

Named “End our Pain”, Alfie’s mother, Hannah Deacon and Mike won the first Schedule 1 license to prescribe whole-plant cannabis on the NHS. Hannah then became the first person to enter the UK with cannabis containing THC.

Alfie received the first NHS prescription for medical cannabis through a shared care agreement, agreed by the Home Office. Hannah now works alongside Mike Barnes as part of the team at Maple Tree to develop an ethical medical cannabis industry, supporting businesses, individuals and patients.

A Schedule 1 drug is judged to have no therapeutic value but can be used for the purposes of research with a Home Office licence. The decision by the Home Office will put certain cannabis-derived products into Schedule 2 – those that have a potential medical use and will place them in the same category as cocaine and heroin.

The “End Our Pain” campaign went onto encourage some doctors to embrace the changes to the laws on prescribing medical cannabis.

Where we are now

Yet, even with this amazing start, as stated by Mike Barnes, 90% of NHS doctors do not prescribe medical cannabis due to a lack of knowledge and understanding, being too conservative and being unsupported by medical bodies and hospital trusts.

NICE is a government appointed body which looks at the cost effectiveness of new medicines. They determine whether a new medicine works, if that medicine is safe, and if it does work, is it good enough to help at a reasonable cost.

When NICE were given the task of looking at medical cannabis, Mike Barnes suggests it was immediately rejected due to the lack of evidence of its effectiveness. But Mike believes that cannabis should not be classed as pharmaceutical and instead be classed as botanical due to its 147 cannabinoids and the extensive ways in which cannabis can be tested. Cannabis cannot be tested in the same way as a pharmaceutical can and therefore should not be held to the same account.

The Statistics

In the UK alone, 10,000 people are privately prescribed medical cannabis out of a reported 1.4 million users of Cannabis. Shockingly, only 3 prescriptions of medical cannabis have been given out by the NHS to high profile children (those that have been in the news). Both Alfie and Billy Caldwell, another child well documented within the news for his rare form of epilepsy, have shown great improvements in their seizures since using cannabis.

Billy’s mother said “Crucially, my little boy Billy can now live a normal life with his mummy because of the simple ability to now administer a couple of drops a day of a long-maligned but entirely effective natural medication.”

Whilst the NHS pulled through for these 3 children, others must look elsewhere to access medical cannabis.

Private patients must pay upwards of 4 figures to access medical cannabis. We’re talking between £300 to £500 a month plus private consultation fees. This figure for parents can be substantially more as often, children require a higher dose of medical cannabis to treat their issues.

Yet, when parents try to find out information about medical cannabis, and push for a prescription, many parents are met with threats of social services for even contemplating the idea of medical cannabis for their children. A crazy thought when the only 3 NHS prescriptions to be given out have been for children and have been proved to be highly effective in their treatment.

These high prices patients must pay privately seem incredibly unfair and discriminatory considering medical cannabis is legal in the UK and should be available on the NHS and not just to those who can afford it.

Mike Barnes states that the success rate with cannabis is around 88% for issues such as pain and anxiety.

For doctors and healthcare professionals who need further convincing, have well over 1,000 documented trials on the study of Cannabis from across the world all demonstrating clear successes with medical cannabis.

The future of medical cannabis

Doctor education is one of the most crucial elements to unlock access to medical cannabis to the wider population. From studies across the globe, cannabis is proven to help when all other medications have failed.

Our medical professionals must move with the times, unlearn what they know of recreational cannabis to allow them to see medical cannabis as an effective treatment for a wide range of conditions. They must drop the stigma and stop being so conservative.

Mike Barnes believes that medical cannabis in the UK is a multi-billion pound industry and with the effective implementation could create 100,000 jobs and generate income for the government rather than creating income for the illegal market. However, the implementation of this means that the pharmaceutical industry would take a financial hit if less people are being prescribed medications. In the USA alone, 25% less opioids are prescribed due to cannabis use.

Whilst the UK is further along then we ever have been before in terms of medical cannabis, we have a long way to go. The NHS need to make significant changes in order for the UK to catch up with numerous other countries all of whom are benefiting from medical cannabis.

In the UK there is an increase in clinicians, doctors and organisations all of whom are working towards making medical cannabis more accessible, ensuring medical professionals have access to the right education, support and information to hopefully allow this area to grow.


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