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New UK study highlights scale of illegal cannabis use for health reasons

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A new research paper has highlighted how many people are still accessing cannabis illegally for medicinal purposes in the UK, over five years on from the law change.

Despite medical cannabis being legalised in the UK in 2018, previous reports indicate that a large number of patients continue to source it through the illegal market to manage their symptoms. 

A YouGov poll conducted by researchers at Curaleaf Clinic, between 22-29th September 2022, suggested that as many as 1.8 million people may be self-medicating with cannabis in the UK – a significant increase from the 1.4 million estimated in 2019.

Now a new paper, published by JMIR Publications, examines these findings in more detail.

1.77 million self-medicating with cannabis

A total of 10,965 participants responded to the cross-sectional questionnaire, of which 5,700 indicated that they were affected by a chronic health condition.

Respondents’ were asked a series of questions related to their medical diagnoses, illicit cannabis use, cost of purchasing illicit cannabis per month, and basic demographics. 

According to the findings, of those suffering with health conditions, 364 (6.38%) purchased illicit cannabis to self-treat health conditions.

The sample was weighted to be representative of the adult population of the UK. Utilising census data from 2021, the researchers estimate that 1.77 million UK adults are using illicit cannabis for medicinal purposes despite the establishment of more than 40 specialist clinics now prescribing the treatment privately.

Conditions which increased the likelihood of reporting illicit cannabis use for health reasons included, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), multiple sclerosis and other mental health disorders.

More than half (55%) of participants who consumed illicit cannabis for this reason were male and the most common age group was 18-24. Meanwhile 44% said they were in full-time or part-time employment.

Costs of illicit cannabis and barriers to legal access

Most (37%) said they spent between £1-£99 on illegal cannabis each month. 

However, 19% reported costs of £100 to £199, 13% spent £200 to £299, while 10% of respondents spent £300 to £399 with 7% spending £400 or above.

When asked why they chose to consume cannabis illicitly, the most common response was that they presumed legal access was very “difficult”, “expensive”, or “not appropriate to get timely treatment of their condition”.

In addition, just under half (48%) said they had never discussed it with their doctor and one in five individuals reported that their doctor had “either advised against CBMPs or did not know enough” about these medications.

The authors state: “The most striking finding from this study is that a 1.77 million people were estimated to use illicit cannabis to treat their diagnosed health conditions based upon best available survey data… Considering the potential health and societal harms that may be associated with illicit cannabis, irrespective of potential medicinal value, it is important to consider policy interventions which may facilitate the transition of patients from illicit cannabis to legal CBMPs with clinical oversight.”

Funding of clinical trials should be a ‘priority’

While real-world evidence has “played a crucial role in advancing the field of cannabis science”, the authors say, the findings support the need for funding for randomised controlled trials in conditions such as chronic pain and anxiety, which are estimated to affect 3.99 and 7.73 million UK adults respectively.

They add: “It is important to prioritise funding and the adoption of novel research methodologies to establish the efficacy of CBMPs and the role they should play in the treatment of chronic health conditions for all individuals.”

Sarah Sinclair is a respected cannabis journalist writing on subjects related to science, medicine, research, health and wellness. She is managing editor of Cannabis Health, the UK’s leading title covering medical cannabis and CBD, and sister title and Psychedelic Health. Sarah has an NCTJ journalism qualification and an MA in Journalism from the University of Sunderland. Sarah has over six years experience working on newspapers, magazines and digital-first titles, the last two of which have been in the cannabis sector. She has also completed training through the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society securing a certificate in Medical Cannabis Explained. She is a member of PLEA’s (Patient-Led Engagement for Access) advisory board, has hosted several webinars on cannabis and women's health and has moderated at industry events such as Cannabis Europa. Sarah Sinclair is the editor of Cannabis Health. Got a story? Email sarah@prohibitionpartners.com / Follow us on Twitter: @CannabisHNews / Instagram: @cannabishealthmag

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