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1.4 Million British Adults Using ‘Street Cannabis’ To Treat Chronic Conditions, Reveals Poll

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Nov 26, 2019   
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Around 1.4 million Britons are using illicit “street” cannabis to treat a diagnosed medical problem, according to a new poll from the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) and the Cannabis Patient Advocacy and Support Services (CPASS), conducted by the polling giant YouGov.

In contrast, since legalizing medicinal cannabis last November, only 18 prescriptions for medical-use cannabis have been issued through the country’s National Health Service (NHS), with a further 104 prescriptions issued through private practice, according to a recent freedom of information request.


True extent of self-medication larger than previously thought

Previous estimations had put the number of people in the UK using illicit cannabis to treat a formally diagnosed medical condition anywhere between 50,000 and 1.1 million people. However, due to concerns over potential selection and reporting biases in the data set, the figures never entered the national conversation around drug policy.

This new poll is reportedly the largest ever sample used for this purpose, consisting of 10,179 people surveyed over a one-week period in October 2019. The national survey was also representative of the general population. Of the poll respondents, 86 percent reported residing in England, and 39 percent were over the age of 55.

Participants were asked basic demographic questions, including their age, gender, social grade, working and marital status. Respondents were also asked if they had ever been medically diagnosed with, or treated for, any of a list of medical diagnoses. Patients were then asked if they had ever used cannabis – excluding over the counter CBD oils – to treat the symptoms of the condition or the side effects of treatment for this condition. Those who had used cannabis products were then prompted to include how frequently they used cannabis for this purpose, and a rough estimate of their financial spending on cannabis per month.

Based on the poll responses, it’s estimated that the real number of Britons self-medicating with illicit cannabis is closer to 1.4 million people, or 2.8 percent of the adult population.

Of the respondents using cannabis in this way, 56 percent reported using cannabis on a daily basis, with a further 23 percent indicating weekly use. In terms of spending, 44 percent spent up to £99 on cannabis per month, 21 percent spent between £100-199, and nine percent reported spending nothing on cannabis – implying they were self-cultivating the plant at home. Data on the types of conditions being treated are due to be collated and released in a future report.

“For the first time we have reliable, representative data regarding the number of people in Britain using cannabis as a medicine,” said Dr Daniel Couch, medical lead at the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, in a statement.

“Over a million people are using cannabis illegally to relieve their symptoms. The findings are astounding and present a national challenge. We urgently require robust clinical evidence to evaluate the safety and efficacy of cannabinoid medicines”


Addressing patient access issues

Earlier this month, the issuance of new prescribing guidance from the UK national drugs advisory body, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), approved two new cannabis medicines for use by the NHS.

The medicines, produced by British company GW Pharmaceuticals, are cannabis-based treatments designed to reduce spasticity in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), and seizure frequency in two rare forms of epilepsy.

The guidance also recommends the prescription of the synthetic cannabinoid nabilone as a treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting for patients who have not found relief with traditional antiemetic medications.

While the NICE guidance, in theory, could widen patient access by giving doctors more confidence in prescribing cannabis-based medicines for these purposes, the guidelines have been criticized for being too conservative.

Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, praised the approval of the new cannabis medicines and the new prescription advice as “brilliant,” but added that the guidance didn’t go far enough.

“No cannabis-based treatments have been recommended to treat pain, a common symptom of MS,” she said. “Additionally, because [one of the medications] will be funded by local bodies – who might not have the resources they need to prescribe it – even more people could miss out.”

Writing in the opinion section of the British Medical Journal, Ian Hamilton of the University of York, said that, “the most likely catalyst to accelerate access to medicinal cannabis is another prolonged media focus on the experience of children and families who are denied products they believe could help them”, referring to the high-profile media coverage of sick children that initially prompted the UK government to review its cannabis policy, and then legalize medicinal cannabis in response. 

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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