How can I access medical cannabis in the UK?

August 17, 2023

With an ever-evolving global perspective on cannabis, many countries, including the UK, have witnessed significant changes in their legislation surrounding the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. While it’s undeniable that the topic remains surrounded by some misconceptions and concerns, the tide is slowly turning. For those of you seeking information on how to access medical cannabis in the UK, this guide has got you covered.

A Glimpse Into the UK’s Cannabis History

Before we dive deep into the process of accessing medical cannabis, it’s crucial to understand the journey the UK has taken in its stance towards this plant. Cannabis has been a controlled substance in the UK since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, classed as a Class B drug. However, in November 2018, a landmark decision led to the legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes under specific conditions.

The Legal Framework

Medical cannabis became legal in the UK in November 2018. This historic decision came after some high-profile cases drew attention to individuals who benefited from cannabis-based medications. The change in the law allows specialists (not general practitioners) to prescribe medical cannabis under specific circumstances.

However, while the law permits the prescription of medical cannabis, it’s worth noting that it’s not widely available as many might believe. Only a limited number of conditions are considered, and the prescription guidelines are stringent.

Who Can Prescribe Medical Cannabis?

Contrary to some beliefs, not every doctor in the UK can prescribe cannabis. The responsibility lies solely with specialist doctors registered on the Specialist Register of the General Medical Council. These include neurologists, pain management specialists, and pediatricians, to name a few.

Conditions That Might Be Considered for Medical Cannabis

Medical cannabis isn’t a go-to remedy for every ailment. The conditions for which medical cannabis may be prescribed are quite specific:

  • Children with rare, severe forms of epilepsy: Some anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis-based treatments can reduce the frequency and severity of seizures.
  • Adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy: When conventional treatments fail, some patients find relief in cannabis-based medicines.
  • Adults with muscle stiffness caused by multiple sclerosis: Sativex, a cannabis-based medicine, has been approved for this use.
  • Intractable pain: In cases where conventional pain management treatments are ineffective, medical cannabis might be considered.

This list isn’t exhaustive, and as research progresses, other conditions might be included.

What Products Are Available?

Medical cannabis products in the UK are mainly limited to cannabis-based medicines, including:

  • Sativex (nabiximols): An oral spray that contains a combination of THC and CBD. It’s licensed for the treatment of muscle stiffness and spasms in multiple sclerosis (MS).
  • Nabilone: It can be prescribed to help relieve sickness in people having chemotherapy.
  • Epidyolex: A CBD-based treatment approved for two forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Where Does the UK Get Its Medical Prescribed Cannabis?

The sourcing of medical cannabis has always been a topic of interest. The UK does not have a widespread infrastructure for cannabis cultivation specifically for medical purposes, which means much of the medical cannabis consumed in the UK is imported. Countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, and Israel have been notable exporters of medical cannabis to the UK.

However, it’s essential to note that these imports must adhere to the UK’s stringent quality and regulatory standards. The process ensures that only certified and safe medical cannabis reaches patients.

Will I Have to Pay Anything for It?

When it comes to the cost of medical cannabis, the scenario is varied. In most cases, medical cannabis is not available for free on the NHS. The reasons range from the lack of widespread endorsements from bodies like the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to the cost implications of the medication.

Patients who receive a prescription for medical cannabis will usually have to cover the costs privately. The prices can be relatively high, depending on the specific product and dosage prescribed. It’s always advisable to discuss potential costs with your specialist during the consultation.

The Process to Access Medical Cannabis

If you believe that you or someone you know could benefit from medical cannabis, here’s a step-by-step guide to access it:

  • Consult with Your GP: Your first port of call should be your General Practitioner (GP). While they cannot prescribe medical cannabis, they can refer you to a specialist.
  • See a Specialist: A specialist will evaluate your medical condition and previous treatments. If they believe that medical cannabis is an appropriate treatment, they can prescribe it.
  • Filling the Prescription: Currently, there are very few pharmacies in the UK that stock medical cannabis products. It’s essential to find a pharmacy that can order the medicine for you.
  • Regular Check-ups: Once on the medication, regular follow-ups are necessary to monitor any side effects and the efficacy of the treatment.

Challenges & Limitations

It’s crucial to understand that even though medical cannabis is legal, accessing it is not straightforward. Here are some challenges:

  • Limited Awareness and Experience: Not all specialists are comfortable or informed enough about medical cannabis to prescribe it.
  • Cost: As mentioned above, medical cannabis is rarely available on the NHS, and patients often bear the costs.
  • Supply Issues: As mentioned, not all pharmacies stock cannabis-based medicines, which can make accessing the treatment challenging.

Private Clinics: An Alternative Route

For those who can’t access medical cannabis through the NHS or want a quicker route, several private clinics in the UK can prescribe cannabis-based medicines. However, this often comes at a hefty price, both for the consultation and the medication.

The Future of Medical Cannabis in the UK

While the legalization of medical cannabis in 2018 was undoubtedly a significant milestone, the UK still has a long way to go compared to countries like Canada or several US states. Advocacy groups and patients are continually pushing for broader access and more research to understand cannabis’s potential benefits fully.

In conclusion, accessing medical cannabis in the UK is possible but comes with its challenges. As the conversation continues and more research surfaces, it’s hoped that the process will become smoother for those who genuinely need this form of medication.

Keep yourself updated, stay informed, and always consult with medical professionals when considering any new treatment.

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