By Emily Ledger
Thousands of multiple sclerosis patients in the UK are being denied access to medical cannabis products that can help to improve symptoms, according to the MS Society.
Cannabis was legalised for medical use in the UK almost three years ago, however, patient access remains extremely limited. Specialist clinicians are now able to prescribe medical cannabis products for a variety of conditions, including multiple sclerosis (MS).
Studies have found that a large number of patients with MS – a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord – have found cannabis to be helpful for the management of symptoms, including pain and spasticity.
Sativex, a THC:CBD oral spray product, was licensed and approved for use through the NHS and recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for use for spasticity related to multiple sclerosis in 2019.
However, the charity claims that people with MS are still struggling to access treatment through the NHS.
The MS Society reported that “eligible people with MS are being denied the option to try it. Many are finding that despite the treatment being approved, they are being denied access in their area.”
Research carried out by the charity found that only 49 out of 106 clinical commissioning groups in England are routinely offering medical cannabis treatment. It also estimates that around 4,800 people would be eligible for the treatment – but, just 630 are currently being offered it.
Many patients are turning to private clinics, often paying significant amounts for treatment, or buying cannabis products through the black market.
According to the MS Society (UK): “One in five people with MS we surveyed in 2014 told us they’d used cannabis to help with their symptoms.” Respondents to this survey claimed that medical cannabis had helped with muscle spasms and stiffness (spasticity) and pain.
Medical cannabis is technically legal through prescription to treat spasticity – a symptom of MS that is characterised by muscle spasms and/or stiffness. This symptom is believed to affect around 80% of people living with MS.
However, current recommendations have come under criticism as medical cannabis is still not routinely available for pain management associated with MS.
This month, the MS Society has launched its campaign to end the “postcode lottery” that is currently dictating the availability of medical cannabis products to MS patients in England.
Fredi Cavander-Attwood, policy manager at the MS Society, said: “It is completely unacceptable that two years after receiving Nice approval, Sativex is only available in 49 out of 106 health areas in England.
“MS can be relentless, painful and disabling, and getting the treatment you need shouldn’t be a game of chance. Sativex doesn’t work for everyone with MS, but when it does work, the impact can be life-changing.
“Right now, some people with MS are having to choose between living with excruciating spasms or paying as much as £500 a month for a private Sativex prescription – it costs the NHS under £300 to provide the same dose. Some are even being forced to break the law by buying cannabis illegally.”