The use of medical cannabis in the UK: legality and health benefits, explained

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018

Medical cannabis is used by a growing number of people with certain health conditions to alleviate pain, as an alternative to traditional medicines and painkillers.

But are there issues with its legality, and what are the proven benefits?

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Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018, and by 2019 approximately 56 per cent of UK adults using it to treat medical conditions were taking the drug on a daily basis, according to Statista.

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018 (Photo: JPIMedia)

A further 24 per cent of those surveyed were using cannabis on a weekly basis to help with the symptoms of their medical conditions.

How do patients currently gain access to medical cannabis?

Currently, medical cannabis can only be prescribed for use in the UK by specialist doctors, who carry out a thorough assessment of the patient in order to evaluate medical concerns and ensure the treatment is a suitable option for them.

Dr Dimitrios Paschos, consultant psychiatrist at Medical Cannabis Service explains that “it is illegal to use recreational cannabis or medical cannabis in the UK without a prescription.”

The decriminalisation of the class-B drug - which is only currently available for medicinal purposes with a prescription - is something which Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently said he would examine if he is re-elected on 6 May.

In regards to medicinal purposes, Dr Paschos says that medical cannabis “can only be prescribed to adults aged 18 years and over, and in special cases to treat paediatric epilepsy”.

The Centre for Medical Cannabis said that for children and young people under the care of paediatric services, the initiating prescriber of cannabis-based medicinal products (CBMPs) “should also be a tertiary pediatric specialist”.

However, although it is possible to obtain a prescription for CBMPs from the NHS, the Centre says that “many patients currently gain access through a registered private clinic”, which “can be a complex and daunting process”.

Although there are several patient support groups designed to make the process smoother, if you’re in any doubt you should “talk to your GP and they will be able to advise and refer you to a specialist doctor”, the Centre adds.

UK law also requires that patients have tried at least two other licensed medications for their condition - which have failed to treat their condition - before being prescribed medical cannabis.

Dr Mikael Sodergren, managing director and academic lead of Sapphire Medical Clinics, says that although “medical cannabis can be considered ​at different treatment stages depending on the condition”, it is mostly prescribed “​when first line therapies have not achieved adequate benefit”, for example if they’ve been ineffective or caused side effects for patients suffering with conditions.

Medical cannabis oil, administered orally, is the most common form of medical cannabis prescribed, says Dr Sodergren, but dried cannabis flower can also be prescribed for patients to vaporise.

However, “all prescribed products must meet regulations put in place by the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) including compliance with ‘Good Manufacturing and Distribution Practices’ (GMP),” adds the doctor.

The different medicines contain a range of single cannabinoids or full plant extracts and vary in their levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

“The dose and choice of medicine is unique to the individual patient,” says Dr Sodergren.

The benefits of cannabis-based medicines

There are a wide variety of conditions that medicinal cannabis can help with, but Dr. Dani Gordon explains that some of the most common reasons people use it are for conditions “ranging from neuropathic pain to fibromyalgia, anxiety, neurological symptoms from a number of causes and to help with cancer treatment side effects”.

However, “there are no restrictions on conditions, it is up to the doctor to decide here in the UK,” adds Dr Gordon.

The doctor also says that cannabis-based medicines can help with many overlapping conditions in complex cases, such as chronic pain, anxiety, sleep disturbance and inflammation, which often come together in a single patient, but can be very hard to treat with a single pharmaceutical drug.

“Cannabis-based medicines can help with all of these symptoms and improve quality of life and daily functioning in a very powerful way,” adds Dr Gordon.

“I have been using this group of medicines for many years and with thousands of my patients who had not had relief from other medications.”

Dr Gordon says that there are very few NHS prescriptions currently available for medical cannabis, but she hopes “with further physician education and working with policymakers this will change, as most patients who need to access these medications currently are unable to do so due to cost barriers”.

Further use of medical cannabis in the future is something which Dr Paschos also supports: “Making medical cannabis more accessible will inevitably help benefit more people.

“Because it was only legalised in November 2018, it is still not yet widely available, however it is growing in accessibility as well as acceptability.”