patient access to medical cannabis UK

3 Years In: An Update on Medical Cannabis in The UK

On the third anniversary of medical cannabis legalization in the UK, there are a total of three patients with a prescription through the public system. Many more patients receive cannabis-derived medications, including whole flower and cannabis oil, through a growing number of private clinics.


Market analysts continue to place high hopes on the potential of the UK market. Yet, in its current form, there remains significant room for improvement to the UK system. 


With little to no access through the public system and the radically expensive costs associated with privately supplied medical cannabis, many patients are desperate for prescriptions. With growing calls from patients and patient families, the UK’s medical cannabis program is at a tipping point once again.


The Current Legal Landscape for Medical Cannabis Patients in the UK


Access to medical cannabis in the UK remains quite restrictive. Patients with one or more qualifying conditions may only request a prescription through a specialist consultant. That means general practitioners cannot initiate a prescription for medical cannabis. However, they can continue prescribing based on an initial one one issued by the specialist.


The regulations stipulate that patients must have exhausted at least two other non-cannabis treatments before they can receive a prescription through the public system for a cannabis-derived alternative. That could potentially mean months, if not years, of trial and error before a patient may qualify.


The most challenging condition within the UK’s medical cannabis policies is the requirement for published evidence. Medical cannabis may only be prescribed if there is published scientific support for its therapeutic benefits. 

Most people familiar with cannabis research will appreciate the complications caused by this policy. Patient access around the world suffers because there is a lack of research. 


Unfortunately, cannabis research isn’t getting the funding it needs because of several ongoing issues, including lingering historical stigma. RYAH Group is hoping to help change that, by supplying devices to one of the largest clinical trials in the world, based out of the UK.


But, for now, access remains extremely limited through the public system, many patients have turned to private cannabis clinics. Companies like MediCann on Jersey and Guernsey Islands, Cannabis Access Clinics in London, and a handful of others are helping patients access medical cannabis. However, this is costly, with patients paying thousands of pounds a month for the medicine they need.


In 3 Years, Only 3 Patients Granted Prescriptions

According to a report by the BBC published on October 31, 2021, the National Healthcare Service (NHS) has issued just three prescriptions for whole-plant cannabis oil since the law’s inception three years ago.


One of those recipients is Alfie Dingley, a young boy who has become the UK’s face of medical cannabis advocacy. Dingley, diagnosed with an exceedingly rare form of epilepsy at birth, was one of the heart-wrenching stories that led to legalization in 2018. 


As Dingley’s mother explained to the BBC, “We feel very blessed. It’s changed our lives, and it should be available to everyone.” But, in her opinion, prescriptions have seemingly only been made available to the patients at the center of all the media attention, her son among them.


She is working with the End Our Pain campaign. End Our Pain is fighting to improve the situation in the UK for patients seeking medical cannabis. Dozens of families have reported being refused medical cannabis prescriptions through the NHS. 


Patients and Their Families Desperate for Access

Medical cannabis, whether through the NHS or a private clinic, is changing the lives of people living with extremely challenging medical conditions.


ITV News highlighted the story of six-year-old Marley-Rose Boulton from Fishburn in County Durham. Living with a rare form of epilepsy and autism, she has been receiving medical cannabis through a private clinic since March of 2021.


Kat Boulton, Marley’s mother, explained that ,”within a couple of weeks of starting… the medical cannabis prescription, she was able to walk, able to run, she could sit up unaided. We don’t have 10, 12 seizures a day and overnight. We have maybe one and the duration of the seizures is much less and it is much less severe – recovery time is shorter.”


Another story, this time via the BBC, highlighted the plight of Bailey Williams, a Welsh teen experiencing hundreds of epileptic seizures every day. 


As Williams’ father described, “Bailey has been on this medicine now for five-and-a-half years, and in five-and-a-half years we have not had an ambulance visit.” In that time, Bailey has not required any overnight stays in the hospital, which was a dramatic improvement from before his treatment with cannabis.


Private cannabis clinics are a blessing for patients and patients’ families desperate for support. Still, the price is significant and sometimes impossible to carry, month after month. For example, according to the reports, Marley Boulton’s medicine costs at least £1000 ($1,361 US) per month, and Bailey Williams £1200 ($1,633 US) per month. For most patients, this isn’t sustainable.


Medical Cannabis in the UK: Poised for Growth but Change Needed


In 2020, Prohibition Partners suggested the UK market could reach £2.31 billion ($3.13 billion US) by 2024. Statista offered an updated estimate in 2021, predicting the market would hit $1.29 billion US by 2024. At the current pace, these numbers seem unattainable. But change is coming.


The UK public is firmly behind medical cannabis, with more than three-quarters supportive of legal access. With the growing public outcry following continued reports that the government is refusing access to this valuable therapy, change is in the air.

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