Medical cannabis has been legally prescribed since 2018 in the UK, but how do you know if it’s right for you?
Medical cannabis is becoming increasingly popular, with an estimated 10,000 patients using it to treat both mental and physical health conditions.
Here, we’ll answer some questions you might have around accessing a prescription.
What is medical cannabis?
Cannabis is thought to have been used for medical purposes for over two thousand years. Today, cannabis is associated primarily with its use as a recreational drug, but in recent decades it has emerged again as a potential therapeutic for various health conditions.
Medical cannabis differs from ‘street’ cannabis in that it is produced under strict, regulated conditions which ensure the medicines are of medical grade and contain a consistent concentration of cannabinoids.
Prescribed cannabis is produced under Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards, the minimum standard that a medicines manufacturer must meet in their production processes.
There are few clinical studies on its safety and efficacy, due to the fact it is made up of hundreds of different compounds, making whole plant cannabis unsuitable for randomised control trials (RCTs).
However, medical cannabis is generally thought to be much safer than many commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals, and there is a wealth of real-world evidence which points to it being very effective in some cases.
Is it legal?
Medical cannabis was made legal in the UK in 2018, however, access to the medicine is limited. While only a handful of patients are prescribed medical cannabis through the NHS, there are upwards of 10,000 patients receiving a private prescription through around 18 clinics prescribing in the UK and on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
Cannabis contains a wide variety of compounds that have been found to offer health benefits, but the main active components are the psychoactive compound THC and the non-psychoactive CBD. The latter can be found in shops across the country where it is marketed as a food supplement or infused into creams and other dermatology products. Although it is legal to sell CBD, retail products are not regulated in the same way that medical-grade CBD is.
Products containing more than 0.2 per cent THC on the other hand are illegal unless you have a prescription.
What conditions can it be prescribed for?
Medical cannabis can be prescribed for a wide range of psychiatric, neurological and physical health conditions.
The media’s coverage of medical cannabis mainly focuses on its use for rare forms of epilepsy in children, but with few paediatric neurologists prescribing, there are in fact not many children actually receiving a prescription for their condition.
Some people use medical cannabis to manage mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, OCD and Tourette’s syndrome. the drug has also been found to help some people manage neurodivergent conditions like autism spectrum disorder(ASD) and ADHD.
The majority of people with a medical cannabis prescription use the treatment for managing chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, Ehlers-danlos syndromes (EDS) and cancer-related pain.
What are the requirements for a medical cannabis prescription?
Firstly, you will need to have a condition that is suitable for a medical cannabis prescription. For this, you will usually need to provide your medical history.
Generally speaking, patients are considered for a medical cannabis prescription if they have tried two or more first-line treatments without seeing improvement in their condition. You can get a referral from your GP or specialist but this is not always necessary.
At your clinic of choice, the consultant will ask you questions to assess these factors and determine whether you are suitable for a prescription. Some clinics offer free eligibility assessments.
Is it safe and are there any side effects?
CBD is generally deemed very safe, hence why it’s legally available to buy as a supplement. In some cases, it can cause diarrhoea, dizziness and tiredness but most people will not experience these side effects.
Due to its psychoactive effects, THC comes with more potential side effects including dizziness, dry mouth and disorientation. Cases of major side effects like psychotic episodes as a result of medical cannabis are extremely rare.
Your consultant will start you on a low dose before gradually increasing it to curb unwanted effects.
Is it suitable for everyone?
Cannabis is like all other medicines; what is right for some is not right for others. For example, cannabis might not be suitable for people with a history of schizophrenia or psychosis due to the psychoactive properties of THC.
THC has also been shown to increase heart rate and blood pressure so those with heart rhythm problems should also exercise caution. This being said, some studies have shown that cannabis may have cardioprotective properties that could lower the risk of heart disease.
It is also worth noting that medical cannabis does not always mix well with other prescription drugs, but if you’re seeking a medical cannabis prescription your doctor will assess whether it is right for you.
This article is intended for educational purposes only. Always speak to your doctor before making any changes to your medical care.
Mental health, addiction and medical cannabis – an expert’s insight
We sit down with the recently-appointed medical director of The Medical Cannabis Clinics, Dr Luisa Searle.
The recently-appointed medical director of The Medical Cannabis Clinics, Dr Luisa Searle, shares how her background in psychiatry and addiction is feeding into her new role.
Dr Luisa Searle has been treating patients with addiction disorders for the last six years, seeing patients struggling with substance misuse and establishing outreach services for young people and the homeless across London.
Now, she is helping people legally access cannabis, a substance that has historically been demonised as a ‘gateway drug’.
Feeling burnt out and craving a fresh new challenge, Dr Searle was looking for a change in her career when she crossed paths with The Medical Cannabis Clinics, joining the team as medical director in April this year.
“It frustrates me, this division that there seems to be in mental health, whereby if you’ve got a substance misuse issue, you’re not worthy of mental health treatment,” Dr Searle told Cannabis Health.
“But actually, your mental health is often being self-medicated by substances and whether you agree with that or not, that’s how some people cope.”
Prior to joining TMCC, Dr Searle was unaware that medical cannabis was beginning to be prescribed more widely.
She was coming into the industry with a fresh perspective, and despite her background in addiction medicine, she said she had very little prejudice against cannabis.
“It didn’t make sense to me to not explore it,” Dr Searle said.
Dr Luisa Searle, medical director at The Medical Cannabis Clinics
A balanced approach
“I’m not here to say it’s a wonder drug. I’m not here to say it doesn’t have its risks or side effects. It’s by no means suitable for everybody, but this idea that it’s a substance of abuse and not even [worth] researching as a potential medicine I think is, unfortunately, based in historical racism and hysteria, which has no place in science as far as I’m concerned.”
But while she was intrigued by this new and emerging field of medicine, due to her past experience, she was determined to take a “balanced approach” to prescribing.
For Dr Searle, it is imperative that cannabis is seen for what it is. While it has immense potential for managing hard-to-treat conditions and a possible alternative to physically addictive opioids, it is still a substance that can cause dependence.
“Any substance, legal or illegal, with some psychoactive effect has the potential for abuse, but that’s where I come in as the doctor,” Dr Searle said.
“If I felt that you needed diazepam, that prescription is entirely under my control. It is down to me to work with patients to try to prevent [dependency] from happening and to advise and educate them, so that they can make informed decisions about their care.”
Dr Searle is only three months into her role at TMCC but she is already seeing the positive impact that medical cannabis is having on patients.
People with difficult-to-treat conditions like insomnia and anxiety are seeing improvements in their lives after trying numerous conventional treatments that failed to help.
Meanwhile, patients who have previously relied on pharmaceuticals like antidepressants and SSRIs – which can come with severe side effects – were able to “feel themselves” again after reducing their dose of traditional medication in favour of medical cannabis.
“What’s really been nice is seeing success with people who have tried lots of different conventional treatments and haven’t really gotten anywhere,” Dr Searle said.
“I was talking to a gentleman who had a traumatic brain injury and was getting migraines on a regular basis. He had really struggled with his work and his life. With a small amount of medicinal cannabis flower, he feels much more himself.
“That’s the really nice thing [about] working in this clinic; just seeing that turnaround in people who’ve been quite stuck.”
Having worked for the NHS for 15 years, Dr Searle is a firm believer in everyone having access to the healthcare they need.
Right now, this does not apply to the medical cannabis space. Very few people have been able to access an NHS prescription while private prescriptions can cost hundreds per month.
“It is a little bit challenging for me that I have to be in a private clinic in order to provide medical cannabis treatment,” Dr Searle said.
“While TMCC has extremely reasonable prices in comparison to other types of private health care, it is still a cost and if you’re on a low income it might as well be a million pounds.”
Dr Searle wants to see medical cannabis being more widely prescribed, but it has to be “sensible” with regulations around who can prescribe and how.
She continued: “Why shouldn’t it be available on the NHS in the right circumstances? What I don’t want to see is what can potentially happen with opioids – with people becoming dependent on them.
“It’s not a medication for all. There are concerns, particularly among younger people. We’re still not 100 per cent clear as to the risks around potentially life-changing mental health issues and specifically psychosis.”
Importance of eduction
Dr Searle has not encountered huge numbers of cases where recreational users have later developed psychosis, but she has seen enough for it to be a concern.
“It’s not something that I could just dismiss,” she said.
“When we have young people coming to us, it’s all about education. It’s just like any medication, if you start on antidepressants, you don’t start with a high dose, you start on a low dose and build it up. You check the tolerance and you review the patient regularly to see if there have been any improvements or side effects.”
Dr Searle also points out that studies into psychosis and cannabis use have examined street cannabis rather than medical-grade products prescribed by clinics like TMCC.
“Street cannabis potentially has incredibly high levels of THC and very low levels of CBD,” she said
The benefits for some patients speak for themselves, but Dr Searle stresses the fact that a medical cannabis prescription is not right for everyone.
“Whilst I think [medical cannabis] is great and we get lots of positive feedback, we do have some adverse reactions to it where it’s not suitable,” she said.
“People shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security that just because your doctor prescribed it and it’s legal for medicinal use it’s not without its risks.”
Dr Searle sees a lot of potential in cannabis as an alternative drug for chronic mental health disorders and pain, even as a possible method for weaning patients off opioids. But she warns that people who are prone to addiction may end up transferring their dependency from one substance to another.
“If you break your leg, opioids are fantastic for that, but what they’re not so good for is chronic pain,” she said.
“The withdrawal process from them can be horrendous and there could be a place for cannabis to alleviate some of those withdrawal symptoms.”
But, she added: “I think I would be much more cautious about that, simply because until you’ve dealt with and understood your addiction and those behaviours and those are resolved and you’ve engaged with other ways to cope with your emotional stresses, you may just be switching one addiction for another.”
Medical cannabis and pregnancy – what you need to know
Canadian cannabis patients use less opioids and alcohol – study
Just under half of patients say they have reduced their use of other controlled substances.
Just under half of Canadian medical cannabis patients say the treatment has enabled them to reduce their use of other controlled substances.
According to new data, nearly one in two Canadian patients authorised to use medical cannabis say they have been able to reduce – or cease entirely – their consumption of other controlled substances, particularly opioids and alcohol.
A team of researchers from Canada and the United States surveyed almost 3,000 Canadian patients enrolled in the nation’s federal medical marijuana programme, which began over two decades ago.
Medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001, the country legalised the possession and retail sale of adult-use cannabis in 2018.
In the research, which was published in the Journal of Cannabis Research, investigators reported that 47 per cent of respondents acknowledged substituting cannabis for other controlled substances.
Of those who said that they used cannabis in place of prescription medications, half acknowledged doing so for opioids – a finding that is consistent with other studies.
Many respondents also reported using cannabis to reduce their alcohol intake.
However, the study highlighted the need for more open communication between patients and their doctors.
Around one-third of respondents did not inform their primary care providers (PCP) that they were engaging in drug substitution.
Authors concluded: “This study examined patient-provider communication patterns concerning cannabis use and substitution in Canada.
“Results suggest that patients often substitute cannabis for other medications without PCP guidance. The lack of integration between mainstream healthcare and medical cannabis could likely be improved through increased physician education and clinical experience.
“Future studies should investigate strategies for effectively involving PCPs in patient care around medical cannabis with specific focus on substitution and harm reduction practices.”
Commenting on the findings, NORML’s deputy director Paul Armentano, said: “Cannabis has established efficacy in the treatment of multiple conditions, including chronic pain, and it possesses a safety profile that is either comparable or superior to other controlled substances.
“It is no wonder that those with legal access to it are substituting cannabis in lieu of other, potentially less effective and more harmful substances. As legal access continues to expand, one would expect the cannabis substitution effect to grow even more pronounced in the future.”
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