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Research to shed light on how UK clinicians view medical cannabis

UK medical professionals are invited to take part in a new ​​outreach project

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Psychology student and addiction expert, Hallie Heeg, is collaborating with Drug Science on the project

A new research project aims to get to the bottom of why many UK clinicians are still reluctant to prescribe medical cannabis.

Medical cannabis patient and psychology student, Hallie Heeg, is inviting UK medical professionals to participate in a new ​​outreach project, which aims to shed light on their views and knowledge around prescribing medical cannabis.

Heeg, who is originally from the US, has more than a decade of experience working in the field of addiction and eating disorder recovery – which enlightened her to the role cannabis can play in holistic healing.

After entering recovery from an eating disorder herself in 2006, Heeg began managing rehab clinics and went onto work for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the largest non-profit addiction and mental health programme in the States. 

“In the addiction field it’s drugs or no drugs, it’s very black and white, but I started seeing people who were sober, using psychedelics for trauma work in a clinical way – but they were having to keep it hidden,” she says.

“I got really frustrated by that, because if as clinicians, their creed was to do no harm and to put the patient first, we should be looking at all these different types of modalities and different medications and not just putting our beliefs into one.”

Heeg self-medicated for many years before accessing a cannabis prescription, finding that it helped ease her anxiety and quieten the negative thoughts of her eating disorder. 

“I’ve used it throughout the years, but more from a recreational perspective,” she explains.

“[When I got my prescription] I started seeing my anxiety decrease, I started seeing the negative thoughts going away and I was having a healthier relationship with food. Slowly I was able to reduce the prescription drugs I was on.”

The question of why

Moving to the UK after meeting her husband, Heeg got a coaching certificate and founded her own coaching and intervention service, WeRise, to continue supporting patients through recovery. Last year, she went on to enrol on a Masters programme in psychology at the University of East London.

For her dissertation she has collaborated with the UK’s drug reform charity, Drug Science, to try to understand the attitudes of clinicians towards medical cannabis.

“There are something like 1.4 million medical cannabis users in the UK, however, that’s typically those who have to source it from the illegal market,” she says.

“I really want to understand why people aren’t prescribing and why the numbers on the illicit market are so big in the UK, but yet the amount of medical cannabis users being able to access it legally is so small.”

The first step in the project is a five minute, anonymous survey for doctors and prescribing nurses across the country.

“There are not a lot of studies around medical cannabis in terms of doctor’s knowledge, particularly in the UK, because it is so new,” says Heeg.

“Myself and Drug Science are hoping to raise awareness around this and from a patient advocate standpoint, but equally from a medical and research standpoint, help inform them on how they could actually become prescribers.”

She adds: “It will also help us with making decisions and determining policies, by really understanding what the views of the medical community are, why they believe this and how we can debunk any myths around it.”

Hallie Heeg has worked in addiction for over a decade

Medical cannabis and eating disorders

After completing her Masters, Heeg plans to open her own eating disorder clinic and treatment centre. 

Having seen the benefits of medical cannabis both personally and through her clients, she would like to see more research and discussion around its use in these conditions.

“I really have seen great results with it, typically in anorexics and bulimics, and my hope is that we can play a part in doing more research around that,” she says.

“Every week we hear about how eating disorder services are in crisis, there’s a shortage of beds, the number of adolescents struggling is rising – it’s the number one mortality among any mental illness. And yet we don’t seem to put a lot of effort into research around that when it comes to medical cannabis.”

However, her colleagues in the field – and that of addiction – have been reluctant to engage so far.

“When I sent my survey out to those contacts, I got several responses back saying ‘I work in addiction, why would I take the survey?’ And since I sent it out to my eating disorder network, I haven’t gotten a response back,” says Heeg.

“It feels a little vulnerable for me to kind of put this research out there, because there’s a community that I’ve been a part of that also looks at it as this gateway drug.”

She adds: “It’s been challenging, to be honest with you, to find clinicians who are even interested in taking a survey with the word medical cannabis in.”

Doctors and prescribing nurses in the UK can complete the anonymous survey here

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Mental health

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.

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Mental health, addiction and medical cannabis - an expert's insight

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. 

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“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.”

NHS access

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.”

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Medical cannabis and pregnancy – what you need to know

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Canadian cannabis patients use less opioids and alcohol – study

Just under half of patients say they have reduced their use of other controlled substances. 

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Canadian cannabis patients use less opioids and alcohol - study

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.

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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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