Medical cannabis containing THC (the compound in cannabis that gets you high) can be prescribed for a limited number of conditions on the NHS. The medication is different to the cannabis-derived CBD “wellness” products available on the high street, which experts have warned typically contain very low concentrations of CBD and mainly lead to a “placebo response”.
Despite legalisation of medical-grade cannabis, patients have reported difficulties securing NHS prescriptions.
Grow Biotech handles about three-quarters of all medical cannabis imported into the UK – and the company told the BBC it had received more than 100 requests for private prescriptions so far this year, of which about 60 had been fulfilled.
The NHS acknowledges that “very few people in England are likely to get a prescription for medical cannabis”.
“A prescription for medical cannabis would only be given when it was believed to be in your best interests, and when other treatments hadn’t worked or weren’t suitable,” it says on its website.
Currently, medical cannabis is only “likely to be prescribed” on the NHS for children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy, and adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy.
Parents Emma Appleby and Lee Moore were left “in tears” in April this year, when medical cannabis they had tried to bring into the UK to help their epileptic daughter, Teagan, was confiscated at Southend Airport.
The family had flown to Holland and had the medicine prescribed by a paediatric neurologist at the Erasmus Hospital in Rotterdam, paying using £4,600 of their own and fundraised money.
Peter Carroll, director of the campaign group End Our Pain, said no family should go through what their family went through. “This is a medicine that’s legal in the UK,” he said. “The law was changed for a reason. It was changed on scientific advice as well.
“To put these families who have already got this stress and worry of caring for very sick children through all the trauma – Emma has been passed from pillar to post, she’s tried to do the right thing at every stage of this process.”
Carly Barton, deputy director at patient advocacy group United Patients Alliance, decided to grow her own medical cannabis and ask police for amnesty, after she was denied an NHS prescription.
She has several auto-immune conditions and chronic pain following a stroke in her 20s, and fibromyalgia. “I have tried every pharmaceutical drug for pain management, including morphine and fentanyl but not only did these drugs not control my pain, they ruined my quality of life and left me completely debilitated,” she blogged on HuffPost UK in April 2019.
“Cannabis, however, has allowed me to return to some level of functionality. It is the difference between me needing assistance cutting up my food and me being able to return to part-time work.”
In August 2019, a review by NHS England highlighted a “lack of evidence” about the long-term safety and effectiveness of medical cannabis, concluding that some clinicians “do not have the specialist professional education needed to make fully informed prescribing decisions in cases where [medical cannabis] may be appropriate.”