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Image: Artem Podrez / Pexels
Image: Artem Podrez / Pexels

Medical cannabis barriers are failing patients

Tonia Antoniazzi MP
January 9, 2024

Medical cannabis was legalised in 2018 as a result of a series of highly impactful campaigns from families of children with severe forms of epilepsy. These stories captured the attention of the nation and rightfully spurred action from the government.

One would think that following the policy change put in place 5 years ago to allow specialist consultants to initiate prescriptions for medical cannabis, more patients in the UK would now be able to access this medicine. Yet this is not the case - the policy is failing those that need it the most - the children which led the law change in the first place.

As co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Medical Cannabis under Prescription, this is an area I am extremely passionate about. This interest was sparked during the campaigns of 2018 for providing access to paediatric patients who desperately need it.

Like many parliamentarians at the time, I thought that with a policy framework in place to allow clinicians to prescribe medical cannabis they would do so. However, 5 years on clinicians still remain terribly risk averse, despite the growing and clear evidence base of the transformational benefits to patients.

Medical cannabis was legalised based on the moving, powerful stories of children with rare forms of epilepsy. These are now the patients that are most struggling to access this medication. The Government is in a complete deadlock on the issue and needs to do more to support the children who require this medication to survive.

The Government is in a complete deadlock on the issue Quote

It is important to distinguish between the different types of medical cannabis patients. For the time being, private access is likely the correct step for adult patients. We must not accept paying for prescriptions, but for now over 30,000 adult patients are benefitting from private access. This will help build and improve understanding of the importance of this medication.

However, paediatric patients are struggling to access cannabis oil privately, which is pushing them to the illegal market. Whilst there are two prescribing clinicians for paediatric patients in the private sector, they have closed their appointments. This paired with the complete absence of a clear NHS funding pathway, and education or support to prescribe for clinicians, leaves paediatric patients’ parents and families looking to illicit sources of cannabis. This does not safeguard the patient or the family. We should learn from those countries such as Canada that have taken a harm reduction approach when prescribing in paediatrics where illicit use is noted.

It is a total failure of the Government that patients requiring medication that is legally accessible are pushed to access it illicitly.

There are several barriers to access which currently exist for patients. Not only are the costs prohibitively high, funding pathways are unclear and clinicians are hesitant to prescribe.

I recognise that this is an emerging field of medicine and I am not a clinician. However, the paediatric cases which we are constantly presented with demonstrate clear evidence that these medicines have the potential to completely change the lives and well-being of these children. Whilst it is hugely important to gather the evidence base required by regulators, this must not impede prescribing for those children who are not able to wait several years for research to happen. The prescribing of unlicensed specials within the NHS is not a new concept and this can help build the historical data which is used in prescribing for children.

The modern medical applications of cannabis have not been around for long, so it is completely understandable that more research is needed. But these paediatric patients do not have the time to wait until after research is conducted and trials completed. They require the medication – one made legally accessible over half a decade ago - now.

800px Official portrait of Tonia Antoniazzi crop 2

Tonia Antoniazzi is the Labour MP for Gower and is Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Cannabis under Prescription.

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