Medical cannabis remains difficult to attain in healthcare under the UK government, but it holds great promise for both NHS patients and the economy
The UK government can ill afford to disregard the explosion of interest in and potential widespread benefits of the medicinal cannabis sector. Expected to top $1.3 billion by 2024, Tej Virk, CEO at Akanda, writes to the new PM: “Can we please finally have a conversation about medical cannabis?”
The value alone to the economy and to job creation is enormous, aside from the health benefits to patients suffering from a range of physical and psychological conditions which have been shown to respond to cannabis-based medication. The sector nevertheless needs the sanction and support of the UK government with the application of due process, to permit the wider use of these products.
What have candidates said so far on medical cannabis?
If we have already used ‘ill’ and ‘afford’ in the same sentence, we can do so again. There are thousands of children and adults in the NHS system who are both extremely ill and unable to afford either the cannabis-based products for medicinal use (CBPMs) that are currently being prescribed by some physicians in the private sector or any further delay by the government in opening a proper debate around their efficacy and uses.
The two candidates for the premiership, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are no strangers to the subject of cannabis, although neither has broached it as part of their manifesto in the race to the top job at Number 10. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak invested part of the Future Fund money into a CBD oil company, and Truss was an advocate for cannabis in her university days, but whoever becomes PM, they would do well to look further, open the debate and create awareness and education campaigns that would result in greater access to CBPMs.
Listening to the facts about medicinal cannabis
There is currently a dearth of information and research around CBPMs, although there are a number of products already available whose positive results are well documented, particularly in the field of severe treatment-resistant paediatric epilepsy. These products, however, are largely being dispensed in the private sector – according to data from the NHS Business Services Authority (March 2019) there have been fewer than 10 NHS prescriptions for CBPMs issued in primary care since November 2018.
There have been fewer than 10 NHS prescriptions for CBPMs issued in primary care since November 2018
In March 2019, a review into the issues around barriers to clinically appropriate prescribing of CBPMs was led by the National Medical Director and the Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, all the findings of which pointed to a lack of both evidence-based research into the efficacy and long-term effects of CBPMs and education amongst doctors.
In addition, many of the cannabis products that are available to both the private and public sectors are unlicensed, and the prescribing doctor must jump through a series of hoops to do so, as well as assume liability per the General Medical Council (GMC) guidance on the prescribing and use of unlicensed medicines. It is also a fact, however, that some of the non-CBPM treatments that are being prescribed, again for epilepsy, are also unlicenced and some have devastating side effects, and yet we see them in use.
Companies are looking into safe and effective drugs
It is incumbent now on the UK government, soon to be led by a new Prime Minister, to establish and fund independent and extensive research programmes into cannabis-related medications. Companies, including Akanda, are investing in the research and development of safe and effective drugs which may not be commercially viable to produce until there is a consensus in the medical fraternity, and a directive for NHS doctors, that they may go ahead and prescribe CBPM products.
UK decision makers need only to look at countries like Canada, Germany and Australia, which have thriving medical cannabis markets
Without a body of research and evidence, including from patients currently using CBPMs, and given the current cost, it is unlikely that these medicines will be funded through the NHS anytime soon, depriving an entire patient base of access to solutions to a range of conditions. Until there are more products that are licenced and made commercially available, these cannabis-related medications will remain expensive and inaccessible to the vast majority of Brits. If domestic research and evidence are not sufficient, UK decision makers need only to look at countries like Canada, Germany and Australia, which have thriving medical cannabis markets.
Increasing jobs, benefitting patients, and reducing costs
Greater production of cannabis-related medicinal products will produce manufacturing jobs, bring down the cost of the products and ultimately benefit both the patients and the country’s tax base, as well as the NHS which will be able safely and cost-effectively to assist patients with proven long-term relief from their conditions. If the sector becomes properly regulated with the support of the government, Akanda is amongst a number of companies that are well positioned to ramp up the supply of their existing product offering making them viable for the NHS.
Currently, any NHS funding for unlicensed medication is for lower-cost products and for short-term use only, whereas CBPMs remain expensive and are generally utilised to provide symptomatic relief over a longer period.
What currently exists is a parallel market of expensive, privately dispensed CBPMs and a thriving black market – highly dangerous and unregulated – where desperate patients are sent to find relief from the burden of affliction. It is imperative then, that we have a grown-up conversation about the introduction of CBPMs into the mainstream raft of registered medications.
We call on the new PM, whoever they will be, to exercise the political will to bring about much needed change and modernisation to the sector.