Approaching five years since medical cannabis was legalised in the UK, a new BBC documentary accuses the government of misleading the public over its availability on the NHS.
On 1 November, 2023 medical cannabis will have been legally available on prescription in the UK for five years.
In that time, however, fewer than five prescriptions for unlicensed cannabis medicines have been obtained through the NHS, as confirmed by an FOI request made by Cannabis Health in August 2023.
The same request revealed that between November 2018-November 2022, over 140,000 prescriptions for unlicensed products were issued privately, with around 30,000 people now thought to have been prescribed the treatment.
A BBC documentary, which aired on iPlayer on Wednesday 13 September, highlights how despite an exception having been made for a select few patients, millions are still forced to fund it themselves or turn to the illegal market.
Hannah Deacon’s son Alfie Dingley was the first child in the UK to obtain a full licence for whole-plant cannabis through the NHS in 2018.
Alfie, who is shown in the documentary taking his cannabis oil at breakfast, playing football and heading off on the bus to school, has now been seizure free for over three years.
“I felt my son’s legacy was that millions of people would now get access to the treatment that he had, which was a wonderful feeling,” Deacon said, reflecting on how little has changed since he got his prescription.
“I think they changed the law to take the wind out of my sails because the campaign was very effective. All of the parents who are now trying to get access for their children’s epilepsy are blocked at every turn. It broke my heart.”
Patients forced to choose between food or medicine
The documentary also hears from patients who are prescribed cannabis privately but face a daily struggle to fund it.
Breast cancer survivor, Amanda Lowe, explains how cannabis helps her manage the nerve pain resulting from 14 operations, but sometimes she is forced to choose between eating or accessing her medication.
Meanwhile, Tourette’s patient Conor Ryder, says his prescription is eating into his savings.
“It’s about £300 a month,” he said.
“We scrimp and save where we can in order to be able to afford it basically, but we are going through our savings. I’m hoping that soon I’ll be able to work and maybe be able to manage it because that’s the only way if it doesn’t become available on the NHS.”
A ‘difficult position’ for doctors
Experts interviewed by the BBC claim it was misleading of the government to legalise medical cannabis without the right infrastructure or regulations in place to allow doctors to prescribe.
Dr David McCormick, a paediatric consultant at King’s College London, said it left doctors like himself in a ‘difficult position’.
“The message went out that doctors can now prescribe cannabis-based medicinal products, but as doctors that has left us in a difficult position, because in truth we need to apply for the cannabis to be approved by NHS England,” he told the BBC.
“I would like to see better evidence for their efficacy and safety, at this I don’t quite feel the evidence for me is there.
“That does mean we find ourselves in a strange situation right now, in the sense that these products are not available within our much-loved NHS, free at the point of need.”
Dr McCormick added: “I do have some concerns about the private industry, mostly because I don’t know what these products contain, how much my patients are getting and what effects that might have on them in the long term.”
Explaining some of the barriers which are currently preventing doctors from prescribing, Professor David Nutt, founder of Drug Science and former scientific advisor on drugs to the government, said: “Most doctors will not prescribe any medicine until two things happen; the first is that a drug company does a trial and tells them that they can prescribe it because they’ve got a licence, and the second is that NICE issues guidelines to say it’s cost effective, and with medical cannabis, neither of those things have happened.”
Professor Nutt described the current situation as ‘outrageous’, adding that by only permitting specialist consultants to prescribe rather than GPs, the legislation has limited access even further.
“It was almost as if they gave it with one hand and took it away with the other,” he said.
“Unfortunately constraining prescriptions to consultants made it almost unavailable to the people that really need it, the people who are in primary care.”
He added: “It’s a scandal that so little has happened in the NHS.”
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