Medical cannabis in the United Kingdom – an ongoing process


Medical cannabis legislation is gaining traction all over the world, and the United Kingdom became one of the latest countries to get on board, legalizing medicinal use of the herb from November 2018. But what has this development meant for patients in Britain, and how does the new law compare to medical legislation in various US states?

While the headlines suggested that this would be a huge breakthrough, it appears that the recent developments are just the beginning for medical cannabis in the UK. Doctors may now be able to prescribe cannabis at their discretion, but that doesn’t mean they are dishing it out easily.

In fact, general practitioners are seemingly very hesitant to do so, as they simply don’t feel confident enough to do so – trainee doctors are not taught about the endocannabinoid system in medical school, which in fairness, has been an issue all over, not just in the UK. This is sure to be a running concern, after a poll was released showing that around one in eight British adults intended to ask their doctor about getting access to medical cannabis.

But the situation in Britain is much different to states like Colorado and California, where patients can simply apply for a medical cannabis card and then purchase products at a dispensary.

However, CBD products derived from hemp, like Koi CBD, are readily available to British citizens, providing they contain less than 0.2 percent delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – this is slightly less than the US THC limit of 0.3 percent.

Fibromyalgia patient prescribed expensive cannabis treatment

Fibromyalgia is a condition which many are finding cannabis helpful for. While there is no clinical proof yet of the effectiveness of cannabinoids, research into the endocannabinoid system has revealed that many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia could be a result of a deficiency in endocannabinoid production – a concept labelled Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD).

In December 2018, the first medical cannabis prescription for fibromyalgia was given in the UK, to 32-year-old Carly Barton. However, the treatment is not being funded by Britain’s socialized healthcare system, the National Health Service (NHS), with Barton having to pay £2,500 ($3,150) per month for the medication, which is being imported from the Netherlands.

Despite the issues with this arrangement, Barton is optimistic that this prescription will help to “open the floodgates” for others in the UK who are suffering from chronic pain, who could perhaps be helped by medical cannabis. Cannabinoids help to reduce pain via direct and indirect interactions with the CB1 receptor, which modulates pain perception.

What brought about the change in UK legislation?

Medical cannabis made big headlines in the UK midway through 2018, with the story of Billy Caldwell, a child epilepsy patient from Northern Ireland. Having initially been granted a special licence in 2017 to be allowed cannabis treatment on the NHS for his rare condition, the UK Home Office prevented Billy’s GP from renewing his prescription, arguing that it went against British law. This was despite the fact that Billy had gone 10 months without suffering from a single seizure.

Billy’s mother made the bold move to take her to son where he could legally access the cannabis oil he needed, before bringing it back to the UK through Heathrow airport. Caldwell’s mother did not attempt to hide the medicine going through customs, which was seized by border guards. However, the incident generated huge publicity, and shone a spotlight on the injustice that the family had faced.

Left in a tricky position, home secretary Sajid Javid was forced by public pressure to grant a licence for Billy to restart his cannabis treatment. But in making this move, the UK government was essentially forced to admit that cannabis does indeed have medicinal value, a step that they had been resisting. Now there is no justification for other children, including Alfie Dingley, who featured in another high-profile case, to be denied cannabis treatment. Javid has since ordered a full-scale review into the medical properties of the plant.

Final thought

As the Carly Barton story shows, the UK still has a long way to go with medical cannabis before it’s on a par with the more cannabis-progressive states in the US.