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Cannabis Access Aggravation for UK Patients

Jessica McKeil
NHS, cannabis, medical cannabis, UK, prescription, private healthcare, legalization, prohibition, restrictions, guidelines

Patients in the public sector have not been able to access UK cannabis for medical purposes.

Six months ago when the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom announced it would allow specialists in the country to prescribe cannabis, thousands of potential patients in the nation rejoiced. The updated regulations meant that the publicly-funded NHS would permit 80,000 specialists to issue prescriptions for the plant. Yet, half a year later and at the time of writing, the NHS has failed to issue a single prescription. Due to near-impossible to meet guidelines, not a single patient in the public healthcare system has gained approval.

Flashback to the announcement in October. Sajid Javid, the UK home secretary stated, “Having been moved by heartbreaking cases involving sick children, it was important to me that we took swift action to help those who can benefit from medicinal cannabis. We have now delivered on our promise.” But if those were the original sentiments, why are sick children still waiting. What is going on with the UK’s medical cannabis laws?

But, to say nobody in the UK has received prescription cannabis isn’t entirely accurate. There are at least 50 patients in the private system who now have access. The problem is with those patients who have no option but to go through the public system. The regulatory hurdles to gain prescription cannabis are too high. And private prescription cannabis is just too expensive.

NHS, cannabis, medical cannabis, UK, prescription, private healthcare, legalization, prohibition, restrictions, guidelines

Public Versus Private – a Nightmare for Patients

As it stands now, even Billy Caldwell the 12-year-old star of the UK’s cannabis movement, hasn’t received a prescription through the NHS. He, along with 50 or so other patients, turned to the private sector. The differences between the UK’s public and private healthcare systems has never been as stark as it is today.

According to The Times report, regulations are too strict. Government-approved prescriptions are nearly impossible to gain. The wording indicates explicitly that doctors may only prescribe  “where there is clear published evidence of benefit” and “a clinical need which cannot be met by a licensed medicine.” But if we know anything about cannabis research, we know there are limited robust clinical trials that would meet this standard.

Even physicians within Canada, Israel, and other medically legalized countries would struggle to meet the stiff requirements outlined in the UK cannabis system. Most research so far is preliminary and completed in animal models in laboratories. And if human studies exist, they are of limited scope. Despite the lack of clinical study, patients around the world have long been self-treating with the plant – with or without a prescription. The research lags far behind the at-home applications.

Resistance to Research

According to the piece in The Times, most pharmaceutical companies who have the funds to pursue clinical trials are unlikely to do so because of the inability to patent the plant. Most major pharmaceutical labels want to put their money into profitable new medicines, not medicines where the patients can theoretically grow it themselves. So there’s no motivation for the kinds of studies needed to meet the UK’s tough medical cannabis prescription guidelines.

NHS, cannabis, medical cannabis, UK, prescription, private healthcare, legalization, prohibition, restrictions, guidelines

Why can the private sector prescribe cannabis, while the NHS has its hands tied? Because of the legislation regarding British healthcare, private sector specialists can prescribe cannabis for medical conditions without additional approvals. Physicians working within the NHS must submit their prescription to an oversight committee for further support. To date, the oversight committee has failed to pass a single decision on cannabis. 

Advocates Are Seeking Change to the UK Cannabis Program Before it Even Begins

There are always a few changes after the launch of a state-wide medical cannabis program. In every region where medical cannabis is available, there has always been a period of adjustment. Usually, the change comes after the program goes through a test period. Yet, to date, the NHS has failed even to put their program to the test.

Jon Liebling, a spokesperson for the Cannabis Patient Advocacy and Support Services told The Times, “While completely supporting the need for clinical trials and understanding the caution of our NHS, it is important to note that unlike the introduction of any other medicines, many thousands of patients have been self-medicating, safely and effectively with street or home-grown cannabis for many decades. Any decision not to prescribe is a decision to send the patient back to the criminal market to access substandard medicine. Quality cannabis-based medicines are prescribed around the world, including Australia, Canada, Israel and Germany; their safety has been tested and confirmed along with their effectiveness.”

He’s not wrong. As per most reports, many patients are still sourcing their medicine on the black market. Patients are desperate. Many don’t have the ability to pay for steep private fees, but still don’t have any hope of getting prescription cannabis through the NHS.

Theory Before Practice

Liebling spoke with Wired magazine in February to clarify why the guidelines failed to meet the needs of prescribing specialists and patients. He said, “…the guidelines – well, those writing them were given three months between the announcement and the delivery of the guidelines, and the guidelines don’t leave any room for specialists to have confidence that they can prescribe this.”

NHS, cannabis, medical cannabis, UK, prescription, private healthcare, legalization, prohibition, restrictions, guidelines

Politicians are frantically working to improve these impossible guidelines. A source reported to The Times that senior government officials are trying to fix the impasse. Until the guidelines loosen no NHS specialist will risk their reputation to prescribe medicine under such strict applications.

Jessica McKeil
Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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