“Are they simply scared of cannabis?”

Four and half years since medical cannabis was made legal in the UK, a group of leading scientists is asking why patients with chronic pain, PTSD and anxiety — which could include upwards of 15 million people — still cannot access these legal medicines without expensive private prescriptions.

They also question whether a wealth of evidence on the drugs’ effectiveness is being ignored, due to prejudiced views of cannabis and a fear of being ‘being soft on drugs’.

Today (3rd May 2023) the research group Drug Science has published further evidence into the effectiveness of medical cannabis — by reporting findings from T21, the largest observational study of cannabis-based medications ever conducted in the UK.

This evidence is consistent with all studies into whole plant/ broad spectrum medical cannabis published since  the drug’s prescription was made legal in the UK, in November 2018.

And it shows that these medicines are significantly effective in treating conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) —  reducing the severity of patients’ symptoms, improving quality of life, and providing a safe and effective alternative to widely prescribed drugs such as opioids, which can come with life-changing side effects.[1]

Whole plant cannabis has proved similarly effective in treating rare and life-limiting conditions such as intractable childhood epilepsy.[2]

Yet the government’s own data shows that only a handful of people in the UK (around 4) are receiving an NHS prescription. In addition, a Freedom of Information Request [3] revealed that no data had been collected by the NHS into the drugs’ value since legalisation — even though this was requested by the government’s own Advisory Council.[4]

“It begs the question, are they stalling a decision because of long standing prejudice and misunderstanding about these medicines? Are they simply ‘scared’ of cannabis?” says Prof David Nutt —  the chair of Drug Science and  an internationally respected neuropsychopharmacologist, who has spent decades researching drugs that affect the brain.

“When you look at the chronic pain figures alone,[5] there could be upwards of 15 million people in the UK who would benefit from these drugs”, says Nutt. “That’s about one in five people whose lives could be improved, quickly, legally, effectively and safely — were the proper decisions made.”

“And we’re hardly asking for the moon on a stick here. We want these legal medicines to be treated like any other. And we want the evidence to be followed.”

In addition to today’s report, Drug Science has conducted extensive research and interviews with patients and practitioners, regarding medical cannabis.

Nutt continues: “We know that a lot of GPs are still unable to prescribe, due in part to unclear and confused guidance from NICE (the National Institute for Care and Health Excellence) around these medicines. And to be generous, I can understand how decision makers were unsure at first. Cannabis still carried a lot of stigma in 2018. But when we questioned the problems with patient access back then, we were told more evidence was needed about these medicines’ safety and effectiveness.

Along with countless scientists around the world, we have consistently delivered this evidence, for years. Yet patients still can’t get the medicines. Why?”

Nutt points out that, should stigma indeed be the barrier, that many ‘street drugs’ are already used in medicine, such as diamorphine — which in its illegal form is known as heroin — being prescribed to manage pain in cancer and other conditions.

 “It’s yet another ‘why’ about medical cannabis, sadly”, Nutt says.

“And it really is bizarre that opioids are given more readily to patients, considering they come with all kinds of side effects, not least the risk of physical dependence.

Indeed, our latest results show that cannabis-based medicines can significantly reduce the need to prescribe opioids, offering a much safer alternative to patients.

The points covered in this release will form part of an address that Prof Nutt will make today (3rd May 2023) at the Cannabis Europa conference, taking place at the Barbican Centre in London.

For more information on this release, please contact press@drugscience.org.uk/ call
+447984 406512.

[1] Characteristics of and 3-month health outcomes for people seeking treatment with prescribed cannabis: Real-world evidence from Project Twenty21, Lynskey, Schlag et al, 2023. 
[2] ‘Epileptic Seizure Frequency fell by 86 percent in kids treated with whole plant medical cannabis’, British Medical Journal, 2021.
[3] FOI request by Drug Science, December 2022 – included in full in the editor’s notes to this press release.
[4] Cannabis-based products for medicinal use (CBPMs) in humans, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, 2020.
[5] Around 15.5 million people in England (34% of the population) have chronic pain. (Arthritis UK, 2022)