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Time to “Educate Doctors” About Benefits of Medical Cannabis, Says Professor Mike Barnes

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Nov 16, 2021   
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“I think there’s absolutely one thing we need to do, and that’s educate doctors,” said Professor Mike Barnes.

Barnes, who is a consultant neurologist and medical cannabis advocate, was speaking at Cannabis Europa 2021, one of Europe’s flagship cannabis conferences.

During a panel discussion on patient access to medical cannabis, he was asked how access could be improved. He started his answer by highlighting the reticence of many doctors in the UK to prescribe cannabis.

“There’s a massive amount of total ignorance about the plant in the medical profession,” he said. “[Their] education, I put as the first priority, and the second, and the third […] that’s positive education; let’s go out to the postgraduate centers, let’s go on to GP [general practitioner] meetings.”

Medical cannabis in the UK

After being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cannabis Europa 2021 finally took place on Thursday November 11 at London’s Banking Hall.

The event was attended by many in the growing European cannabis industry, who listened to talks on cannabis investing, importing, and pricing in the morning, and talks on recreational cannabis regulations and patient access to medical cannabis in the afternoon.

During one of these latter panels, Professor Mike Barnes commented on the medical cannabis sector in the UK, which has notoriously experienced little development since medical cannabis was legalized in late 2018.

“There’s, roughly speaking, one hundred children in the UK who managed to get a private [cannabis] prescription, and three in the NHS [National Health Service]. There’s several thousands of children who would benefit with drug-resistant epilepsy, probably something like 20,000 children who are not getting it, because they simply can’t afford it. And that is frankly not good enough,” he said.

So we need a compassionate access program,” he continued. “But if there’s not a pediatric neurologist prepared to prescribe it [cannabis], that’s going to fall down on day one. So we come back to getting the doctors to prescribe the damn stuff. That’s the priority.”

To get medical cannabis in the hands of patients, Barnes stressed that the attitudes of many doctors need to change.

“Because of the stigma associated with cannabis over many years, there’s a certain arrogance amongst doctors,” he said. “Cannabis has been a very patient-led movement. People have found out about it, they’ve come to their doctor saying, ‘I think cannabis might help my child, or my pain, or my anxiety. Can I try it?’ Doctors generally don’t like to be told what to do by anybody, let alone the patient. And that immediately sets up a mental barrier. We hear these tales so often.”

But while this attitude change should be the priority, according to Barnes, certain structural changes in the NHS will also be needed.

“The government, in their wisdom, didn’t let GPs in the UK, general practitioners, initiate prescriptions,” said Barnes. “It’s consultants who can initiate prescription. Consultants don’t know any more about cannabis than anyone else.”

“And so one lobbying priority in the UK will be getting the government to allow general practitioners to initiate prescription. And we know from a survey that about 25 percent of general practitioners in this country will be happy to prescribe, but none of them can do so.”

“On top of that positive lobbying,” he added, “we need some lobbying against those who are doing their absolute best to undermine the whole process, such as the British Paediatric Neurology Association (BPNA), who are doing their absolute best to persuade pediatric neurologists not to prescribe cannabis for children. They’ve been aggressive about it, and we need to be equally aggressive back.”

More calls for reform

The Cannabis Europa event was certainly not Barnes’ first plea for medical marijuana reform in the UK. As the chair of the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society and founder of the cannabis consulting company Maple Tree Consultants, he has campaigned for years to widen cannabis access.

Writing in Analytical Cannabis last year, he called the state of prescriptions in the UK “woefully disappointing.”

“Ultimately, the cause can be boiled down to the outdated political discourse,” he wrote in December 2020. “This poor framing subsequently affects the education and research available to clinicians, who seemingly lack the confidence to prescribe these medicines, despite the abundance of international evidence showcasing their success.”

“The skepticism in Westminster is also having a substantial impact on the businesses within the emerging industry, as they face an unprecedented amount of red tape and restrictions.”

“In particular, the government has imposed disconcertingly strict regulations concerning the importing and exporting of the drugs. Currently, groups can only import cannabis in accordance with existing UK prescriptions, and most cannabis-based medicines will not be issued with export permits by the Home Office.”

“Such restrictions seemingly pose no purpose other than to hinder the growth of the industry, as excessive red tape may well result in forcing investment outside the UK.”


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