Medicinal Cannabis in the UK
“Society generally adopts new medicines if they’re safe to use, if they work and if they’re affordable.” – The Centre for Medical Cannabis
A YouGov poll which was commissioned by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis in November 2019 suggested that 1.4 million people in the UK purchase cannabis illegally to use it for medical reasons. Many people believe it is the UK’s stringent laws preventing people from getting the access they need to medical cannabis for the treatment of their health conditions that is driving many to purchase cannabis illegally.
This article is going to look at the topic of medical cannabis in the UK, outlining the laws surrounding it, discussing the medical research, and sharing some of the many benefits. Like many people, we believe there is a need to maximise clinical research in this area for the benefit of the patient, in a safe and ethical manner.
Many people have experienced the benefits and, in some cases, life-changing effects of incorporating medical cannabis into their daily lives. We think that medical cannabis should be accessible to those who need it and who have found it effective in treating their conditions. We hope this article adds something helpful to the discussion and helps to encourage future progress in the field of medical research.
What is Medical Cannabis?
Medical cannabis is an umbrella term used to describe cannabis-based medicines used to relieve symptoms ranging from chronic pain to mental health issues. Medical cannabis is made by pharmaceutical companies under very strict regulations and control, just like other medications. Buying medical cannabis without a prescription is illegal in the UK. However, there are products such as CBD oil or hemp oil that can be legally purchased as food supplements.
The cannabis plant contains over 100 different chemicals, otherwise known as cannabinoids. Medical cannabis uses cannabinoids from the cannabis plant to treat a multitude of diseases and health conditions. Each of these cannabinoids has a different effect on the body. The two most common cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and used in medicine are THC and CBD. THC produces the ‘high’ people often associate with the cannabis plant, whereas CBD produces several health benefits.
The Types of Medical Cannabis in the UK
If you didn’t know already, there are different types of medical cannabis. There are numerous ways patients can take cannabis in order to receive the medical benefits they need. The method of consumption will vary from person to person, depending on numerous factors such as how quickly they want to experience the benefits and what they are taking it for. We have listed the different types of medical cannabis are below:
Full Extract Cannabis Oils (FECO)
Full extract cannabis oils are those extracted from the cannabis plant using CO2 or alcohol extraction. Cannabis oil contains a mixture of cannabinoids and terpenes, depending on the strain of the plant and the extraction method used. Terpenes are the compounds that are responsible for the smell and flavours of cannabis, while cannabinoids produce the desired beneficial effects.
Full extract cannabis oil is extremely concentrated and, therefore, is the most efficient way to deliver the full benefits of medical cannabis into your body. If you are new to taking medical cannabis, it is recommended that you start with a dose of oil about half the size of a grain of rice. You should then wait up to 90 minutes to experience the full range of benefits, before moving on to determine the best dosage for you.
Cannabis isolate is a form of cannabidiol that does not contain any THC – the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that produces the ‘high’ it is commonly associated with.
CBD isolate is a crystalline powder that is 99% pure CBD. The extraction process involves removing all active compounds from the cannabis plant before refining it by stripping away any plant matter, including THC, leaving behind CBD in its purest form. The result looks like a confectioner’s sugar and can be consumed in a variety of different ways.
Cannabis that is bought illegally has very high levels of THC that produce the ‘high’ so commonly associated with the cannabis plant. This is because illegal cannabis is manufactured specifically for recreational use. However, illegal cannabis does not have to adhere to strict manufacturing processes and, therefore, with such high levels of THC, can be extremely addicting and dangerous.
In the UK, cannabis bought without a prescription is illegal and considered a Class B Drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The government does not have any control over illegal cannabis, who produces it, who sells it, the quality, and who it is sold to, making it unsafe to consume.
Buying cannabis illegally in the UK is a serious offence, as are the following:
- To unlawfully possess a controlled drug
- To unlawfully supply (sell/give/share) a controlled drug
- Allow premises you occupy or manage to be used for the smoking or use of drugs
- To possess a controlled drug with the intent to supply it.
Who Can Purchase Medical Cannabis in the UK?
On the 1st of November 2018, the government announced that patients can be prescribed medical cannabis by specialist doctors. The law change does not limit the types of medical conditions that can be considered for cannabis treatment. Instead, doctors will need to seek approval from an expert panel to access the medication. Decisions will be made, and prescriptions will be given on a case-by-case basis, and only when a patient has a medical need unmet by licensed products.
However, the Home Secretary has made it clear that the announcement did not pave the way towards legalising cannabis for recreational use. Instead, the penalties for illegal cannabis supply and possession remain the same.
Who Can Prescribe Medical Cannabis and What Can They Prescribe?
In the UK, only a medical practitioner on the GMC Specialist Register for the General Medical Council or a doctor under their direction can prescribe medical cannabis. The regulations around prescribing medical cannabis are extremely strict. The Misuse of Drugs (Amendments) (Cannabis and Licence Fees) (England, Wales and Scotland) Regulations define cannabis-based products for medical use to be as follows:
- Containing cannabis, cannabis resin, cannabinol, or a cannabinol derivative.
- Cannabis produced for medicinal use in humans
- A medicinal product or substance for use as an ingredient or in the production of a medicinal product.
If the three definitions of medical cannabis outlined above are met, then the product is considered for prescription.
Medical Cannabis Manufacturing Standards and Regulations
By law, all cannabis-based products in the UK must meet stringent quality controls around the safety and consistency of the product. They must also meet the EU Good Manufacturing Practice Standard and their import needs approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
As a minimum, it is expected that the proportion and dosage of CBD and THC is clearly labelled. Furthermore, the products should list any other cannabinoids or terpenes present and a Certificate of Analysis should be available.
It should be noted that hemp-derived CBD products that are either THC free or contain less than 0.0% THC are legal in the UK. They readily available from retail outlets and health shops, as they are categorised under nutritional supplements and not as a prescriptible medicine. You can purchase a wide range of CBD products in our shop.
What are the benefits of Medical Cannabis?
Over the years, an increasing amount of research has been released to provide evidence for the numerous benefits of medicinal cannabis. This research has proven time and time again that cannabis may benefit a whole range of health conditions, from physical to mental and plenty in-between. Below we will look at some of the conditions medicinal cannabis has been helping to treat.
Medical Cannabis and Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is classed as any type of pain that has lasted for three months or longer. It includes conditions such as arthritis, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, migraines, as well as pain caused by cancer treatments. Chronic pain is one of the most common and expensive issues the NHS deals with. In fact, a recent study by The British Pain Society found that chronic pain affects more than 40% of the UK population. That means there are more than 26 million people in the UK living and dealing with chronic pain.
With such a huge demand for effective treatments to help deal with chronic pain, the NHS is now looking to move away from prescribing addictive opioids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) after NICE updated their guidance. Chronic pain is a huge problem in the UK and millions of people are receiving medical treatment for it. However, it is estimated that 540,000 Britons are addicted to opioids. This is causing a massive public health crisis, with both medical professionals and patients crying out for a non-addictive and non-toxic solution.
In some cases, medical cannabis has reportedly helped replace the long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen, which when taken regularly can have negative side effects. A 2015 review of research on the use of medical cannabis for treating various chronic pain conditions reports that several trials had positive results. Furthermore, the trial suggested that cannabis may be effective for treating some chronic pain, including nerve pain.
A 2016 research paper found that cannabis improved cancer pain, leading to a 64% reduction in opioid use, better quality of use, and fewer side effects. People also started using fewer medications as a result. Out of 17,000 people with cancer, 70% of those reported an improvement in their pain level and general well-being after cannabis use. People with chronic migraines have also experienced a decrease in the frequency and intensity of their migraines after taking medical cannabis.
Medical Cannabis and Reduced Inflammation
Among the many benefits of medical cannabis is its ability to fight inflammation in the body, thereby reducing a wide variety of conditions. Many medical disorders involve an inflammatory response from the body. This is because inflammation is the immune system’s method of fighting infection, combating illness, and responding to injury. When our body senses sickness, it sends out white blood cells to fight the infection.
However, sometimes people suffer from inflammation even though their body is not fighting off an infection or trauma. In these cases, the body starts fighting its own immune system. This can cause joint pain, swelling, and stiffness; symptoms commonly associated with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, Chron’s disease, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis. In these cases, inflammation can cause significant pain or discomfort that severely diminishes a person’s quality of life. For many people, medical cannabis has provided the relief from their symptoms they have been searching for.
There are several studies that back up these claims and support the anti-inflammatory properties of medical cannabis. Perhaps the most important was a study carried out in 2021 by a group of Canadian researchers. These researchers studied the effects of medical cannabis on the body’s nerve endings and found that participants who inhaled 25 milligrams of cannabis just three times a day for five days experienced a significant reduction in the pain they had been experiencing.
Medical Cannabis and Depression
Research into the full effects of medical cannabis on depression is still very much in its early stages. However, as things currently stand, researchers believe that medical cannabis could help to restore the normal endocannabinoid function in the body, stabilising a person’s mood.
Scientists at the University of Buffalo are studying medical cannabis as a treatment for depression. As part of this research, they have been focusing specifically on endocannabinoids, or chemicals in the brain. Endocannabinoids play a role in motor control, behaviour, emotion, and cognitive control. They also have a similar makeup to that of cannabis.
Scientists believe that introducing cannabinoids from the cannabis plant into the body may help restore the normal levels of function. Thereby easing symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions like PTSD and anxiety.
Medical Cannabis and Proper Sleep Management
Medical cannabis is known for its calming effects on the mind and the body. As a result, it has been known to help improve numerous sleep disorders, such as insomnia. The Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society states that “preparations containing at least some THC seem to be most effective in most people for sleep, based on the evidence so far.”
What’s more, because medical cannabis can help reduce pain in the body, many people suffering from chronic pain find that taking medical cannabis helps to reduce both their pain and help improve their sleep as a result.
Medical Cannabis and Multiple Sclerosis
The short-term use of medical cannabis and medical cannabis can help improve common symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Some people with multiple sclerosis use medical cannabis in a variety of ways to help ease their symptoms, with many reporting that it has helped with muscle spasms, stiffness and pain.
A study carried out by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) confirmed that medical cannabis helped to provide short-term relief for adults with multiple sclerosis-related spasticity. They also concluded that the cannabinoids present helped improve quality of sleep for people with the same condition.
Medical Cannabis and Treating Epilepsy
In June of 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of medications containing CBD to help treat specific types of epilepsy (Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome) that can be difficult to treat with other types of medication. The results were surprising. A study from 2017 found that the use of CBD had resulted in fewer seizures among children with Dravet Syndrome, compared to the placebo alternative.
The research found that the children who received the CBD solution went from having roughly 12 seizures per month to just six. Three children taking part in the study and receiving CBD did not experience any seizures at all.
Further research still needs to be carried out for us to fully understand the benefits of medical cannabis on epilepsy. However, clinical trials are already under way to test cannabis-based drugs for other conditions including pain caused by cancer, glaucoma, appetite loss resulting from HIV or AIDS, and epilepsy in children.
How Does Medical Cannabis Work?
The cannabis plant includes many phyto-cannabinoids. The two most abundant are cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannbinol (THC). We know that medical cannabis works by using cannabinoids, chemicals found in the cannabis plant. These cannabinoids act on the same receptors in the body, allowing for the person taking the medication to experience numerous benefits.When combined, they have the potential to enhance the natural therapeutic benefits of the cannabis plant.
Can Medical Cannabis Get You High?
One of the most controversial questions surrounding the topic of medical cannabis is whether or not taking it can get you high. The answer is no. Taking medical cannabis in the form of CBD (where the THC is extracted or the levels non-existent) will not get you high.
Cannabis has more than 100 active components. One of these components is called tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC for short). It is the chemical that causes the ‘high’ people so often associate with the cannabis plant. It is only by consuming high levels of THC that a person could get high from taking cannabis. Medical cannabis has regulated levels of THC, so it is extremely unlikely you will experience a high from this medication.
Talking with Your Doctor About Taking Medical Cannabis
Many patients find themselves having tried several treatments for their medical condition but experiencing very little relief. As such, they are often interested in talking with their doctor about taking medical cannabis. However, people often feel embarrassed to discuss the topic of medical cannabis to their doctor. In part because further research still needs to be carried out for it to be fully understood.
However, if you would like to talk with your doctor about taking medical cannabis and exploring the different options available to you, the best thing to do is to be completely open and honest about your thoughts. Let them know you would be interested in finding out more about medical cannabis and discussing the potential medical treatment further.
By the end of 2021, Project Twenty21, spearheaded by Drug Science, will be carrying out the biggest cannabis test yet. Alongside The Royal College of Psychiatrists, this project plants to enrol 20,000 patients by the end of 2021 to create the largest body of evidence for the tolerability and effectiveness of medical cannabis on a wide range of illnesses. We hold significant hope that this medical trial will open the doors for medical cannabis to be widely accepted and used to help treat a variety of conditions.
In the UK, medical cannabis is still very difficult to get hold of. While there are private clinics giving out prescriptions, this is still in very exceptional circumstances. We hope that 2021 will bring a new influx of research into medical cannabis and the numerous benefits it can provide for individuals and the medical conditions we live with.
We hope this article has been helpful and informative, giving you more information about the legality of cannabis in the UK, the manufacturing laws, and the numerous evidence-based benefits. If you have any further questions or you would like to find out more about what we do, please visit our website or get in touch today. We would be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.