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Students “End the Stigma” around medical cannabis this Freshers Week and improve access for young patients

Group of People all smiling

As UK students look forward to an ‘in person’ Freshers Week this September, the research and policy charity Drug Science has enlisted the help of student ambassadors to help spread the word about the potential benefits of medical cannabis, and tell the honest and factual truth about drugs

Despite legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use almost three years ago, (shockingly) only a handful of prescriptions have been issued on the NHS, and subsequently many patients remain unaware that cannabis is available as a legal treatment option.

This lack of NHS prescribing, largely down to a lack of clinical guidance and education for doctors, has resulted in thousands of patients being forced to seek medical cannabis treatment through the expensive private healthcare system.

This is why Drug Science has launched its observational medical cannabis study, Project Twenty21. Its aim is to improve access to medical cannabis for patients across the UK by working with licensed cannabis producers and capping the cost of monthly private prescriptions.

Patients enrolled in Project Twenty21 will help Drug Science to collect data on the effectiveness of these medical cannabis products for treating a range of common conditions, the most common being Chronic Pain and Anxiety.

In support of the campaign, some clinics have agreed to offer UK students with a valid student ID a £20 discount off their initial consultation. Participating clinics can be found via the project’s Clinic Directory.

Project Twenty21 student campaign goals

  1. Raise awareness about medical cannabis amongst students.

  2. Educate young people about the truths around this drug, highlighting the major differences between illegal street cannabis and legal medical cannabis in the UK.

  3. Promote Project Twenty21 -which improves patient access to medical cannabis -among students who may benefit from such treatment and support, such as those with Anxiety and Chronic Pain.

Student attitudes regarding cannabis

The student population has long been tarnished with an image off recreational drug use and binge drinking (– alcohol is an incredibly harmful drug, after all). But this caricature doesn’t hold true, not only in terms of young people’s attitudes towards alcohol and their health, but around UK drug policy and cannabis specifically.

In April 2020, a YouGov poll found that an impressive two thirds of people aged 18-24 would support the full legalisation of cannabis in the UK, and more than half of the population as a whole. This shows that ‘Gen-Z’ are considerably more open to drug policy reform than the older generations. Another YouGov survey of the same age group found that 36% felt that regular use of cannabis was “not very harmful”.

The risks of ‘self-medicating’ with illicit cannabis

A survey on ‘Student Drug Behaviour and Mental Health during COVID-19’ (designed by the SSDP UK and Drug Science Student Society) asked students why they might use drugs illegally. 46% said that it was to help relieve depressive symptoms at least some of the time, and similar numbers responded saying that it helped them deal with anxiety and helped them sleep better – all factors being researched by Drug Science for Project Twenty21.

“One of the biggest things to consider with illicit cannabis is that you have no idea what is in there or how much. If you’re trying to find a good therapeutic dose then having untested products makes that quite difficult to repeat consistently. [Another important difference is] the screening you undergo before consuming to check your history and family background for things like psychosis etc., [as well as] the option to have more balanced products. There aren’t a lot of options out there for balanced products on the illicit market.”

– Spokesperson, & /r/UKMedicalCannabis

Moreover, illicit cannabis is, more often than not, actually high THC “skunk” which can lead to many of the negative side effects feeding the stigma of recent years, such as increased anxiety, paranoia and even leading to schizophrenia.

Knowing what exactly is in cannabis products, something possible in a regulated market, is vital for patients to receive the most effective treatment for their diagnosed condition and in helping science to gain an understanding of what does and doesn’t work.

And of course, students using illicit cannabis are risking being caught in possession of illegal cannabis simply to help improve their mental health and social well-being, even though being caught at university could spell the end of their studies.

Student patients and access to medical cannabis

With these facts considered, one might expect a high proportion of patients within Drug Science’s study to fall into this 18-24 age bracket, but in fact the age group makes up a little over 10% of patients enrolling in Project Twenty21. 

Over two-thirds of those are male (reflective of the project’s gender split more generally) – perhaps a result of decades of cannabis stigma and male bias within the recreational community. 

So, despite medical cannabis being available to students and young people, this population is not typically accessing cannabis via legal means – this is likely down to a lack of awareness that it is available (as well as high private prescription costs which cannot compete with any student loan!).

Yet medical cannabis is more affordable than people think.  

Project Twenty21 caps the monthly cost of medical cannabis flower at £150 for 30g, which actually makes it better value for patients than having to spend an average of £10 per gram on the illicit market. 

“You can expect to pay around £220 for an ounce of cannabis illegally, even more if you live in certain areas or need a specific strain for your condition – which is often not possible to source”.

– Abby Hughes, Chair & Outreach Director at Patient-Led Engagement for Access (PLEA).

The evidence for medical cannabis so far

Through data analysis, Project Twenty21 has already found a significant improvement (over 50%) in the quality of life score of patients who have spent three months enrolled in the programme.  More specifically 86% of patients experiencing severe or extreme anxiety and depression at the start of the study have reported an improvement in these symptoms – better than is usually seen (at this stage of treatment) with anti-depressants.

How student ambassadors can help

Drug Science has gathered a team of student ambassadors to help distribute posters and flyers at Freshers Fairs up and down the country, raising awareness around the history of cannabis – one rooted in racism and propaganda largely from the alcohol and paper industries – and highlighting the need for UK-based evidence into the benefits of medical cannabis.

“We’re not even three years into the legalisation of medical cannabis, so it’s unsurprising that the vast majority of cannabis use for medicinal purposes is still via the illicit market. We need people to know that cannabis is now a legal medicine in the UK, that the beneficial evidence is growing and we’re trying to make medical cannabis more affordable for those who need it most. Students and young people can play a key role in helping us get the word out there by talking to friends and family, putting posters up around their university campuses and ensuring that any healthcare student peers, in particular, are aware of the latest research.”

– Mags Houston, Head of Project Twenty21

If you would like to take part, you can fill out this form to order printed materials (before or after Freshers Week) or print your own posters and leaflets via this Google Drive link which includes sharable social media assets.

Drug Science is hosting a virtual conference event aimed at students and young people on 6th October. Free to attend, it will feature a section on medical cannabis from Project Twenty21’s Clinical Director, Professor Mike Barnes. Register for ‘Working in Drug Science’ here.

Student case study: Claire’s story

Project Twenty21 patient, Claire, knows only too well the challenges surrounding cannabis. She owes her university education to self-medicating with cannabis to treat her pain from Fibromyalgia and Endometriosis, but was always terrified that she would be caught in possession.

Claire has suffered with Chronic Pain since her teens when she fell off a horse, shattering her hip. In the years that followed, she would be prescribed a long list of opiate-based medications, in addition to everyday painkillers, most of which came with awful side effects. By the age of 23, she was taking around 480 tablets every single month. To make matters worse, she was often not taken seriously by doctors – her Endometriosis pain was passed off as worry and anxiety – and she found herself having to fight her case time and time again.

It was during her time at music college that Claire came across cannabis for the first time, after talking to a fellow student about the pain she was experiencing and the huge number of medications she was taking in an attempt to treat it. Growing up in a typical “anti-drugs” household, she was reluctant to give cannabis a go at first, but, being at her wits end, decided it was worth a try. The resulting pain relief was nothing short of a miracle.

This experience would lead to Claire finally obtaining a legal prescription at the start of 2021, after her mum read about Project Twenty21 in an article in The Sun newspaper. Medical cannabis enabled her to complete a Masters in Psychology and start planning towards a PhD researching Chronic Pain.

“Now that I’ve got a prescription, I feel a lot more confident applying for my PhD and I won’t be thought of as someone who’s misusing Drugs”. 

– Claire, Student Patient

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