In 2018, the law changed to allow the use of medical cannabis in the UK. This means doctors and specialists can now prescribe cannabis-based medicines to their patients.
What is medical cannabis?
The term “medical cannabis” refers to any type of medicine that uses the cannabis plant or its extracts for medicinal purposes. The cannabis plant contains compounds called cannabinoids. These cannabinoids have potential benefits in treating a range of medical conditions. Medical cannabis should always be taken under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
What types of medical cannabis are available?
Currently, there are three main types of medical cannabis offered by the NHS.
- Nabilone is used to relieve symptoms of chemotherapy, such as sickness and nausea.
- Nabiximols, or ‘Sativex’, is used to treat muscle stiffness and spasms in people with MS (multiple sclerosis).
- Epidyolex helps to control and reduce seizures in people with rare forms of epilepsy.
Epidyolex and Epilepsy
The cannabis-based drug Epidyolex is used to treat rare forms of epilepsy, such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. There are signs that Epidyolex may be helpful for other types of epilepsy but the evidence is currently limited. It is usually only offered to patients whose epilepsy cannot be controlled by other treatments.
Clinical trials show that when used alongside typical anti-seizure meds, Epidyolex can reduce the frequency of seizures by almost 30%. It is not known exactly how Epidyolex delivers these results, but they likely work in a similar way to most anti-seizure medications. Seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Anti-seizure meds control the electrical activity in the brain and prevent the signals that usually lead to a seizure.
As with all anti-seizure medication, Epidyolex can cause side effects.
Are NHS patients eligible to receive a prescription?
Yes. You cannot get cannabis-based medicine from a GP, but doctors and specialists can prescribe Epidyolex to NHS patients with rare types of epilepsy. However, the use of medical cannabis is very restrictive. As few as five NHS patients have received a prescription for Epidyolex since the law changed in 2018.
The first patient to receive an NHS prescription for medical cannabis was the 11-year-old son of Hannah Deacon. Hannah successfully fought for the legalisation of medical cannabis and is now a recognised expert in medical cannabis. Although Hannah’s campaign was effective, BBC reports that Hannah now “feels she only got the drug on the NHS because she made a huge fuss in the media.”
Some doctors have denied patients the use of Epidyolex because they do not know much about the medicine and its benefits. Clinical trials have delivered promising results in using medical cannabis to treat epilepsy. Yet it seems more research will be necessary before this drug is readily available to NHS patients.
Epilepsy Action is calling for more research on cannabis-based medicines as well as for more people with epilepsy to have access to these treatments.
If the NHS deny a request for the use of Epidyolex, patients can opt to pay for private prescriptions from specialist clinics. Even so, many patients may miss out due to the cost of these prescriptions. Medical cannabis is a personalised treatment and prices will vary for each individual. A private patient in the UK could expect to pay around £1,600 for a six-week supply of medical cannabis. This is the case for the parents of 13-year-old Jasper, who has a rare form of epilepsy. Since taking medical cannabis oil, Jasper’s seizures no longer control his life. His experience is one of many real-life cases presented in the following article from BBC News.
Medical cannabis, specifically Epidyolex, has shown great potential in providing relief for patients with rare forms of epilepsy. However, the lack of access to this drug for NHS patients has been a significant barrier.
Fortunately, there are positive signs that things will improve. Increased awareness of medical cannabis has sparked discussions aimed at making it more accessible to those who need it most. Healthcare professionals and patients must continue pushing for greater access to medical cannabis as a treatment option. We hope that all patients can access safe and effective treatment options one day.