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Medical cannabis in the UK

One year on, what has happened?

Nov. 13, 2019

In November 2018, the UK joined the ranks of many other forward-thinking countries and decided to legalise the use of medical cannabis1. This decision followed Uruguay, and Canada’s ground-breaking ruling that legalised medical and recreational cannabis use. Marijuana is also legal for medical use in many states in the USA, although legislation has not followed at the federal level. Nonetheless, the cannabis industry is booming!

Medical cannabis oil



Why did the UK wait to legalise medical cannabis use?

In the early 00s, the UK government reclassified cannabis from a class B drug to a class C drug and then back to class B again - all in the space of five years2. The flip-flopping was caused by growing concern about rising THC levels and the impact this could have on mental health issues, like schizophrenia and depression. The government actually went against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who recommended that it be kept in class C. Few people could see past the negative side effects of cannabis and acknowledge its therapeutic potential.

Why is medical cannabis use now legal?

Many countries have now legalised the use of medical cannabis, and are relaxing laws around recreational cannabis, because cannabis doesn’t just get you high. It has a huge range of potential therapeutic effects. Two significant components of cannabis,THC and CBD, can alleviate the symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s and many forms of cancer. CBD, specifically, has been linked to a reduction in anxiety, inflammation, and even bacterial growth3,6,7. In the end, it was the case of Billy Caldwell that provided the final boost to get legislators on board.

What kinds of medical cannabis are available in the UK?

Currently, there are three cannabis-based medications available for prescription in the UK. After a long wait, both Epidyolex and Sativex have now been licensed for prescription on the NHS in England8. They join Nabilone as the only cannabis-based medications legal for use in the UK.

Previously you were only able to get these medications if you lived in a certain area and met specific criteria. Epidyolex, to treat rare forms of epilepsy in adults and children; Nabilone, to treat nausea and vomiting in cancer patients; Sativex, to treat muscle spasticity in people with MS5.

Can I get medical cannabis from my doctor now?

To get a medical cannabis prescription you need to be referred to a specialist doctor by your GP. But the process isn’t simple. Only the three medications mentioned above are available, with strict requirements about who can have access to them1,4. We understand that this is frustrating for many people, but it’s important not to stop using your prescribed medication and self-medicate with black market cannabis or alternative legal forms. Don’t forget that THC and CBD can interact with different medications, making them stronger or weaker, and this could aggravate your condition or lead to an overdose5.

What about CBD oils?

If you decide to start using cannabinoids as a supplement for medical cannabis, make sure you talk to your doctor first and research the cannabinoid products you choose thoroughly. Some companies have been selling counterfeit products that have no benefits at all, they’re just very expensive. Make sure to look closely at the ingredients in any CBD product before you buy it. Lots of products are claiming to be CBD oil without actually containing any CBD - you can’t get CBD from hemp seed oil.

What’s next for medical cannabis in the UK?

Despite changes in attitude and growing legalisation, we still don’t have clear evidence about the benefits and risks of cannabis. However, by legalising the medical use of cannabis, we can start doing proper clinical trials. This will allow scientists to give doctors conclusive evidence on how cannabis and cannabinoids impact certain conditions.

Professor David Nutt is already on it. He’s leading a novel project, Europe’s first medical cannabis registry called Project Twenty21. It aims to provide vital evidence about how effective medical cannabis can be for treating and controlling certain conditions. Undeniably, progress has been made but when you compare the UK government’s approach to places like Canada, we’re far behind. Here at Drugs and Me, we’re hoping that everyone who needs medical cannabis gets access to it. It’s high time people’s quality of life is put first.


Drugs and Me exists to provide unbiased and non-judgemental information to help you make informed choices about drugs. This post was created for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you are planning on using cannabis, whether recreationally or medicinally, you can learn more about it in our Cannabis guide, which provides you with a wide ranging but concise review and provides harm reduction tips to help you stay safe. The work we do is fuelled by volunteers, so we rely heavily on your support. Why not become a patron or if you prefer, make a one-off donation, to help keep our vital work going.Why not become a patron today, or if you prefer, make a one-off donation. If you like this post, please share it on social media using the buttons below!

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This post was written by Madeline Hambury, our Head of Content. Madeline is a trained nurse and our resident cannabis expert. She started revamping our cannabis guide but we didn’t quite have it in us to let her leave.

References

Photo by Kimzy Nanney on Unsplash

  1. Cannabis products available on prescription [Internet]. BBC News. 2019 [cited 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-46045487
  2. Hope C. Cannabis to be upgraded to class B drug [Internet]. Telegraph.co.uk. 2019 [cited 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1935959/Cannabis-to-be-upgraded-to-class-B-drug.html
  3. Kumar R, Chambers W, Pertwee R. Pharmacological actions and therapeutic uses of cannabis and cannabinoids. Anaesthesia. 2008;56(11):1059-1068.
  4. [Internet]. England.nhs.uk. 2019 [cited 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/letter-guidance-on-cannabis-based-products-for-medicinal-use..pdf
  5. Medical cannabis (cannabis oil) [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2019 [cited 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/medical-cannabis/
  6. Pertwee R. Cannabinoid pharmacology: the first 66 years. British Journal of Pharmacology. 2009;147(S1):S163-S171.
  7. Lafaye, G., Karila, L., Blecha, L., & Benyamina, A. Cannabis, cannabinoids, and health. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. 2017; 19(3), 309-316
  8. Two cannabis medicines approved for NHS [Internet]. BBC News. 2019 [cited 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-50351868
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