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Ensuring regulation of medicinal cannabis works for the benefit of patients

This article first appeared in Analytical Cannabis: What Other Countries Can Learn From the UK’s Medical Cannabis System

The medicinal cannabis market in Europe is complex but growing fast. With increasing patient interest and with millions of people self-prescribing medicinal cannabis, many European countries are examining how to regulate in a way that can provide safe access to patients in need. Don Bellamy, Chief Executive Officer of Linneo Health, looks at the impact regulation has had in the UK and considers the opportunities it presents to other countries exploring laws that would allow patients to access medicinal cannabis to relieve the symptoms of a range of severe, disabling diseases.

When the UK Government rescheduled medicinal cannabis in 2018, allowing specialist doctors to prescribe, thousands of people were offered hope. From general anxiety to chronic pain or the easing of cancer symptoms, medicinal cannabis would be available, safely and securely, to UK patients with a wide range of conditions.

Sadly, the headlines that followed told a different story: no one was able to access it. Demand from patients in need turned to frustration as the products were hard, if not impossible, to get hold of. And doctors’ uncertainty over the benefits and safety of the products stood in the way of access.

Thankfully, four years on and the picture is brighter. From only a handful of patients being prescribed medicinal cannabis in 2018, it is now estimated that as many as 15,000 patients are receiving treatment1.

And why is this so important? It shows that a regulated environment for the prescribing of medicinal cannabis can work. Patients shouldn’t be forced to to self medicate, buying cannabis products on the black market, where, sadly, there are too few guarantees of safety and quality. They deserve to be treated with cannabis medicines of the highest standard. Their patient experience must be the same as for any medicinal product, which means that patient safety is paramount.

Patient numbers in the UK are gradually increasing with more clinics operating and more doctors prescribing. However, it has taken time – time to address the uncertainty among doctors regarding what the new laws actually meant for prescribing, time to understand the potential health benefits and the safety profiles of medicinal cannabis products. But be in no doubt, regulation in the UK has paved the way for patients to reliably, and safely, access medicinal cannabis.

Huge hurdles still remain in bringing these medicines to all patients who need them in the UK. The health and social care regulator, the Care Quality Commission, recently reported that 37,634 cannabis-based medicinal products were prescribed between January and November 20212. And yet these were prescriptions by non-NHS healthcare services. NHS prescribing is still so low that data cannot be reported. And yet, the UK has found a way to provide medical cannabis treatment to patients in need. It´s not perfect, but it´s a good start.

Many other countries in Europe are grappling with the demand from consumers and patients for cannabis products, and how to regulate for this in a manner which provides access to patients in need. One such country is Spain, whose Congress recently voted to approve the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for therapeutic use. The UK experience has been a journey of learning and there is an opportunity for other countries to use this learning, for the benefit of patients.

The UK’s journey should inspire us. While research continues to build around the health benefits of medicinal cannabis, it is already making a significant contribution to the health of a nation, improving the lives of thousands of patients who, without this treatment option, might have given up hope. Spain, and other countries around the world, should look to the UK as evidence that regulation and laws can improve access to cannabis medicines and, ultimately, improve patient care.

Don Bellamy is Chief Executive Officer of Linneo Health, a global leader in the research, cultivation and supply of cannabis to improve human health and wellbeing.

References

  1. Prohibition Partners: The UK is Opening Up to Medical Cannabis https://prohibitionpartners.com/2022/04/14/the-uk-is-opening-up-to-medical-cannabis/
  2. Care Quality Commission: The safer management of controlled drugs: Annual update 2021 https://www.cqc.org.uk/publications/safer-management-controlled-drugs-annual-update-2021#prescribing-trends-in-primary-care
  3. Congress approves the legalisation of medical cannabis in Spain, EuroWeeklyNews https://euroweeklynews.com/2022/06/28/congress-approves-the-legalisation-of-medical-cannabis-in-spain/

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