By Roland Sebestyén
While medical cannabis has been legal in the UK for over three years, headlines, campaigns, and MP speeches in recent months have re-focused our attention on the issue of access to these medications in the UK.
It has been widely reported over recent weeks that, since the legalisation of medical cannabis in November 2018, only three prescriptions have been issued through the NHS. Experts at Europe’s largest cannabis industry conference, Cannabis Europa, aimed to understand why this is and what the solutions could be.
Ever since medical cannabis has been legalised in the UK, a growing amount of pressure has been placed on the government and the National Health Service to make the medicines more widely available and – importantly – affordable.
At Cannabis Europa, some of the most influential experts had criticised the lack of action by the government and regulatory bodies to improve the ability of vulnerable people and their families to access the medicine that could change their lives.
Avihu Tamir from Kanabo Group Plc said there is an argument that medical cannabis is just “too expensive” and there are some problems with the quality as well.
It was pointed out that the companies should be pressed to launch access schemes for people who would struggle to afford medical cannabis under the current circumstances.
(Professor Mike Barnes)
Professor Mike Barnes, Chair of The Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society, said: “There are a hundred children in the UK who have managed to secure private prescriptions and three on the NHS.
“There are several thousands of children who would benefit with drug-resistant epilepsy – probably 20,000 children who can’t get it because they can’t afford it.
“This is just not good enough.”
Concurrently, Avihu Tamir thinks the market is growing and more people will be able to get access to life-changing medicine as early as the end of this year.
He said: “The quality of medical cannabis here in the UK and Germany is higher than in many other markets. Quality-wise, I would say, the market is in a good position – [although] it could always be better.
“When you have a very small market it’s challenging to have competing pricing; the batches are smaller, for example. That’s something that will change rapidly [in the near future].”
“The change is happening now. The market is growing extremely fast. Should it be faster? Yes. Safe access to medical cannabis should be available. How do we get there?
“Are the GPs going to start prescribing it? Is it the NHS that will be more comfortable with medical cannabis? There are many solutions. I think by the end of this year you’ll see a lot of new patients.
“Once you see 100,000 patients, 200,000 patients, that will affect the whole system.”
Could it be a reality?
It might be wishful thinking to believe that a change could happen that quickly, though. The stigma around cannabis is rooted very deeply in our society, with misconceptions still rife. A lack of understanding and willingness within the medical community and healthcare professionals is also contributing to the current standstill.
Roby Zomer from MGC Pharmaceuticals added that a lot of patients are still suffering from a lack of understanding, while the professionals are not aware of what they can prescribe and how to get the right product to their patients.
Professor Barnes is one of the radicals when it comes to medical cannabis.
He has not shied away from criticising the government and guidelines that make it more difficult for the patients to get access to the medicine.
“Are we meeting the needs of the patients? There are two answers to that. Are we meeting the needs of the existing patients? Partly, yes. The price is now broadly the same or even a little bit less than the street price. The choice is there but we need more choice.
“Are we meeting the needs of the potential patients? I’d say we’re willfully inadequate. There are 1.4 million medical cannabis users in the UK alone – add to that those who don’t want themselves or don’t know they should benefit from it, so very conservatively you’re looking at two million people.
“So are we meeting the needs? We’re way off meeting the needs. We need to do a massive amount more to get more people prescribed. I think the only question that matters is how do we achieve that?”
Professor Barnes knows what needs to be done in order to help those in need: education.
He added that medical cannabis has been a kind of patient-led movement, as patients are most often the first to bring up the potential benefit of cannabis for their, or their child’s, condition.
Professor Barnes said: “I think there’s absolutely one thing to do and that educates doctors. There is a massive amount of ignorant about the plant in the medical profession.
“[The problem is the] general attitude of the medical profession because of the stigma associated with cannabis. There’s a certain arrogance among doctors.
“I’d put education as a first priority, and the second and the third.”