Cannabis-derived medicinal products are to be made available on prescription, the home secretary Sajid Javid announced on Thursday. Campaigners hope the move will see the drug used as a front line medicine, but told VICE of ongoing fears many patients could still be denied access.
The decision means that clinicians will be able to prescribe cannabis-based medicines to patients with “an exceptional clinical need” which would likely exclude those who use cannabis to treat every day conditions such as pain relief.
Government bodies have now been tasked with developing a clear definition of what constitutes a cannabis-derived medicinal product with those not satisfying that definition remaining under strict controls.
It is unlikely therefore that edibles or vape pens, which are very popular in the US, will be prescribed with pharmaceutical grade products such as Sativex and Epidiolex – which recently became the first cannabis medicine to gain breakthrough status in the US – more likely to be favoured under the new licensing regime.
Patients living with cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis are more likely, according to campaigners, to be given licenses due to the amount of research that has already been undertaken on the conditions.
Cannabis oils, which are manufactured and prescribed in various EU and north American countries, may well be included with Alfie Dingley, Billy Caldwell, and several other children already granted access to the substance.
However, families have had to go through lengthy bureaucratic processes to gain permission to be in possession of full leaf cannabis oil, and this may still continue.
For long-time cannabis campaigners such as Clark Kent, a founding member of the United Patients Alliance, which represents the interests of medical cannabis patients in the UK, this is “the end of the beginning”.
“Every human being has an endocannabinoid system and more education of the public and health care professionals is essential so that everyone that needs medical cannabis gets it legally,” he said.
“We hope that cannabis is utilised as a front line medicine and not a strictly regulated system only for the most apparent conditions like Epilepsy and MS.
“I am concerned that patients that grow their own could still be prosecuted, which would not be in the public interest and would certainly have a negative impact on someone's health,” he added.
In a statement, the government said it is clear that today’s announcement “does not pave the way towards legalising cannabis for recreational use”.
“The penalties for unauthorised supply and possession will remain unchanged,” it declared.
In the initial Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs report earlier this month, the chief medical examiner said that only cannabis products with “the correct concentrations and ratios” should be allowed.
“Using other forms, such as grown or street cannabis, as medicine for therapeutic benefit is potentially dangerous,” she said.
Although various police forces across the UK have practically ceased prosecuting people for possession of cannabis for personal use, there have been reports that patients have been cautioned for growing high-CBD (the therapeutic compound), low-THC (the psychoactive part that gets you high) plants in their homes to relieve their pain.
“I was arrested but after showing them what I was growing and the strain they de-arrested me and I had to attend the police station a few days later where I was re-arrested and received my caution,” one patient told VICE.
Personal, therapeutic use advocates believe that the new rules will be unlikely to help people who have not proved it ameliorates their conditions and do not already have access to a legitimate supply.
Nonetheless, experts welcomed the “very promising news” and expressed a hope that the government adheres to its plan and makes medicinal cannabis widely available later this year.
"This is very promising news and I hope that the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency stick to the timetable and medicinal cannabis is widely available in the Autumn," said Professor Mike Barnes, the clinician who secured Alfie Dingley’s medicinal cannabis license.
“My concern is that the availability may be too restrictive. We need a sensible and flexible system that draws on the experience of other countries where it is legal.
“It should not go down the route of clinical trials like standard medicines as that will severely limit availability in the short and medium term,” he added.
“We need research studies but not at the expense of delaying a known efficacious and safe product that will help tens of thousands of people in the UK.”
The United Patients Alliance is running a survey to help provide more evidence to inform the new all-party parliamentary group for medical cannabis on prescription which is currently formulating the UK’s future policy.