What Other Countries Can Learn From the UK’s Medical Cannabis System
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The medical cannabis market in Europe is complex but growing fast. With increasing patient interest and with millions of people self-prescribing medical cannabis, many European countries are examining how to regulate in a way that can provide safe access to patients in need.
Don Bellamy, Chief Executive Officer of Linneo Health, looks at the impact regulation has had in the UK and considers what other countries could learn from it.
When the UK government rescheduled medical cannabis in 2018, allowing specialist doctors to prescribe, thousands of people were offered hope. Many thought the medication could soon be available to treat conditions like general anxiety, chronic pain, or certain cancer symptoms.
Sadly, the headlines that followed told a different story: no one was able to access it. Demand from patients in need turned to frustration as the products were hard, if not impossible, to get hold of. And doctors’ uncertainty over the benefits and safety of the products stood in the way of access.
Thankfully, four years on and the picture is brighter. From only a handful of patients being prescribed medical cannabis in 2018, it is now estimated that as many as 15,000 patients are receiving treatment.
And why is this so important? It shows that a regulated environment for the prescribing of medical cannabis can work. Patients shouldn’t be forced to self-medicate, buying cannabis products on the illicit market, where, sadly, there are too few guarantees of safety and quality. They deserve to be treated with cannabis medicines of the highest standard.
Patient numbers in the UK are gradually increasing with more clinics operating and more doctors prescribing. However, it has taken time to address the uncertainty among doctors regarding what the new laws actually meant for prescribing, and time to understand the potential health benefits and the safety profiles of medical cannabis products. But be in no doubt, regulation in the UK has paved the way for patients to reliably, and safely, access medical cannabis.
Huge hurdles still remain in bringing these medicines to all patients who need them in the UK. The health and social care regulator, the Care Quality Commission, recently reported that 37,634 cannabis-based medical products were prescribed between January and November 2021. But these were prescriptions from private healthcare services. Prescriptions from the National Health Service (NHS) are still rare . And yet, the UK has found a way to provide medical cannabis treatment to patients in need. It is not perfect, but it is a good start.
Many other countries in Europe are grappling with the demand from consumers and patients for cannabis products. One such country is Spain. Its congress recently voted to approve the legalization of medical cannabis for therapeutic use. The UK experience has been a journey of learning and there is an opportunity for other countries to use this learning for the benefit of patients.
The UK’s journey should inspire us. While research continues to build around the health benefits of medical cannabis, it is already making a significant contribution to the health of a nation, improving the lives of thousands of patients who, without this treatment option, might have given up hope. Spain, and other countries around the world, should look to the UK as evidence that regulation and laws can improve access to cannabis medicines and, ultimately, improve patient care.
Don Bellamy is Chief Executive Officer of Linneo Health, a global leader in the research, cultivation, and supply of cannabis to improve human health and wellbeing.