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How do I access a medical cannabis prescription?

Two experts discuss the process of accessing a medical cannabis prescription

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Medical cannabis prescriptions: A pair of hands being held out. One hand has pink and blue pills in the palm and the other has cannabis flower. The person wears a white lab coat

Curious about accessing a medical cannabis prescription? It can be difficult to know where to start or what to expect.

Cannabis Health News editor, Caroline Barry, who has a medical cannabis prescription for ADHD, and Dr Jean Gerard Sinovich, medical director of the Cannabis Access Clinics discuss how the process works.

When I decided to get a medical cannabis prescription, I had exhausted all the other options. I had tried prescription drugs for ADHD like Ritalin with little success over my teenage years before moving to various therapies as an adult.

I tried holistic approaches such as acupuncture or CBD which improved my sleep and anxiety but did little to my hyperactivity. Eventually, I reached out to the NHS for medication before having no luck.

Prepare your paperwork

I found a clinic in the UK that offered cannabis prescriptions for ADHD and reached out to them for assessment. The first thing I needed to do was collect my paperwork. As I already had my diagnosis from a psychiatrist, I needed to get proof of this along with which medications I had had over the years.

Dr Sinovich said: “To be assessed for medical cannabis, you need to apply to a clinic either directly or through your GP. We normally advise people to get a full medical history from the GP as to what medications they tried in the past. The person is assessed on an individual basis to find out what the patient is presented with and who specialises in that.”

He continued: “The aim of medical cannabis is to improve your pain, sleep and mood. Patients would have had to have tried other conventional medications for their conditions. If they have exhausted most possibilities and avenues then they could be assessed for medical cannabis. It doesn’t mean that every patient who comes to the clinic is prescribed cannabis.”

Prepare for your assessment

When it was time for my assessment, I was actually really nervous. When you are speaking to doctors, it can be extremely nerve-wracking to accurately get across the level of pain or discomfort you are in. I find that because my ADHD is not visible, I worry about being believed or qualifying for medication. Having had no luck with conventional medications, I was worried that this was my last resort and I wouldn’t get a prescription.

My assessment was with a psychiatrist online. A lot of medical cannabis clinics are based in London which I am not. It’s one of the few positive things to come out of Covid-19, that we have held on to telemedicine.

My appointment was very thorough, but none of the questions were difficult. The feeling of relief when the doctor said he thought I qualified was immense.

Dr Sinovich added: “The consultation process normally lasts anything from half an hour to 45 minutes where we go through the medical history, what their aims are, their views and why they decided to access cannabis at this stage in their life. We also have to make sure there are no possible interactions with any of the other medications.”

Medical Cannabis Prescriptions: A doctor in a white lab coat signed a prescription. In front of him, there is a yellow bottle with oil in it next to CBD capsules and a cannabis bud

Costing out medical cannabis prescriptions

Dr Sinovich highlighted one of the key issues with accessing medical cannabis which patients need to be aware of – the cost.

“The most important thing is that it’s not [widely available on the NHS] so it’s all privately funded. People must be aware of the costs that it entails,” he said.

“It takes time for cannabis to work, it’s not overnight. It can take a good six to eight weeks and you need to follow up continuously to make sure there are no side effects.”

Affording medical cannabis can be difficult as there are few options available for support. Despite cannabis being legalised on NHS three years ago, there remains only a handful of prescriptions that have been written.

Project Twenty21 can help with capped prescription costs as long as patients can qualify for the conditions listed and have a history of two or more prescriptions that have proved ineffective. They have recently launched a student scheme aimed at helping patients affording medical cannabis while on a college-friendly budget.

The cost of medical cannabis tends to be dose-dependent. Cannabis Access Clinic estimate that the average cost of cannabis prescriptions in the UK is around “£150 to £250 per month for a THC and CBD inclusive prescription.”

A CBD only prescription is listed as being on average £100 to £150 a month although they note that some epileptic disorders will require much higher doses.

Patients also have to take into account the consultation fees which can vary from £100 to £200 depending on the clinic. Patients are also monitored through online questionnaires about their moods.

Medical cannabis prescriptions: A hand in a black rubber glove holds a small glass jar of cannabis flower

Speaking to your GP

When it comes to speaking to your doctor about a decision to try medical cannabis, they may not be supportive. If a patient prefers not to speak to their GP about it, they can ask for a copy of their medical records and self-refer.

I spoke to my GPs in both Ireland and the UK. While I had a positive reaction from my English GP who was interested in what effect this would have, my Irish GP was not as supportive. He was dismissive of my seeking medication as an adult in general so the medical cannabis element was a step too far for him. I got my paperwork and have not been in touch with either about my ADHD since then.

Dr Sinovich said: “Most of the time, you can request paperwork from the GP because it’s your details at the end of the day. Most GPs are quite open to medical cannabis in terms of an augmentative treatment to help with different conditions. You get very few GPs that say no. If patients are having trouble with GPs then they can always arrange a call to explain the benefits. We do a lot of educational work with GPs as it’s new and with anything new to a market, people want to see results and can be sceptical about it.”

Don’t be nervous

Before I went for my assessment, I was very nervous. I have had bad experiences with doctors not listening or taking my ADHD symptoms seriously because they may not always believe in the condition. My Irish GP once said to me when I phoned to say I was seeking medication, that ADHD adults ‘grow out of it’, which is a common misconception about ADHD and some forms of neurodiversity. No wonder I was nervous but I need not have been, as the doctors were incredibly supportive. Knowing your symptoms is key though.

Where does my medical cannabis come from?

Once my assessments were over and the team had discussed my case and decided I qualified, I had to decide what the best course of medication was for me. I opted for a vape because it’s easy for me to fit that into my lifestyle in comparison to oils. ADHD people are often forgetful, and I know this applies to me, so I worried I would forget to take an oil dose. My prescription was sent to Rockshaw pharmacy and arrived at my door discreetly. No one would have had a clue as to what the parcel actually was.

“Once you’ve had your consult – and every clinic is different – the script is approved by a multi-disciplinary team then goes to an independent pharmacy,” explained Dr Sinovich.

“The pharmacy will then get the product to them in the next day or within 24 hours. If you are outside of the UK then you may have to wait a little bit longer. For example, we have Guernsey patients who have to apply for a licence so it does take a little bit longer for that process. The patient deals directly with the pharmacy in terms of costs.”

Medical cannabis prescription abroad

It’s worth noting that if you travel, you may not be able to take your prescription with you. As an Irish woman living in the UK with a prescription, I can’t travel with my medication back to Ireland. If you do travel then be prepared for the potentially negative outcome.

Dr Sinovich agreed: “It’s a very difficult one, unfortunately. If you look at the United States and Canada then you can’t travel between borders as there are strict rules in place. We normally advise patients to consult with the consultant and the terms of the country that they want to visit. There are no blanket rules for everyone but most countries in Europe are happy for individuals to transport their medical cannabis across borders. It varies from country to country.  Normally we issue a script that they have to carry in hand luggage.”

Read more about travelling with medical cannabis here

Police involvement

“We normally advise individuals that it’s not for public use. It’s why a lot of people converted to oil or a capsule. People must realise that if they do get stopped then they need to show proof that they are taking medical cannabis legally and according to doctor’s guidelines,” said Dr Sinovich.

“In the UK, it’s still relatively new so people are starting to get more access to products. It’s going to take some time but the law will change.”

Patients can also apply for ID cards such as MedcannID and Cancard which has been designed with the help of the police to identify medical cannabis patients.

Medical Cannabis Prescriptions: A doctor in a white lab coat signed a prescription. In front of him while examining a cannabis leaf

Still thinking about accessing a medical cannabis prescription?

My prescription has been the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s helped me to enjoy my evenings instead of being hyper-focused and tense and I also sleep better now.

Dr Sinovich said: “The nice thing about medical cannabis is it is tailored to an individual. I don’t think I have a single patient with exactly the same dose. It’s a tailor-made plan for an individual and you assess them to see if it’s working. You can adjust the CBD to THC ratios and there are lots of different products to choose from.”

He added: “It’s another armour you can use in treatment. There are multiple CBD receptors in the central nervous system. It’s about adjusting the mindset, obviously, it takes time and individuals need to invest in it. It’s investing in your future itself and what you could achieve or how you could improve your life.

“I have a lot of patients that I’ve seen for whom it is life-changing.”

Read more: New study: can cannabis alter speech production?

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