Should medical cannabis be more available in the UK?

'Without medical cannabis, my chronic pain would stop me playing with my grandchildren'

Medical cannabis. (Getty Images)
Would you take medical cannabis if prescribed by a doctor? (Getty Images)

More than half (55%) of Brits aged 55 and over believe medical cannabis should be made more widely available, while three in five (62%) would feel comfortable taking it if prescribed by a doctor, according to a new study.

Nearly seven in 10 (68%) of this age group wouldn't have a problem with people taking medical cannabis in public, the research shared with Yahoo UK by medical cannabis provider Alternaleaf finds.

Some 17% of 55s and over have taken cannabis, either for recreational or medical purposes, slightly lower than the general UK population at 25%, as per the poll of 2,000 people aged 18+. A further 64% of older Brits believe the overall perception of taking cannabis for medical reasons has improved over the past decade.

"While the majority of our patients are younger, this is changing every week – currently, our oldest patient is 75. The people who are coming to us have often been on other prescribed pain relief medicines for years but are concerned about, or experiencing, the more harmful long term side effects of things like opioids. They’re looking for other, more natural, options," says Dr Anup Mathew, medical cannabis specialist and medical director of Alternaleaf.

Medical cannabis vape. (Getty Images)
There are different ways to take medical cannabis, including with a vape. (Getty Images)

Medical cannabis was made legal in the UK in 2018, but can only be prescribed on the NHS by specialist doctors for children and adults with rare and severe forms of epilepsy, adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy and people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS). This would only be when in your best interest and other treatments hadn't worked or weren't suitable.

Despite the law change, campaigners and families have spoken out about not being able to access some types of medical cannabis for epilepsy. In 2019, The National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) issued guidance saying there wasn't enough evidence to recommend cannabis-based medicines for severe, treatment-resistant epilepsy.

In 2021, it published a clarification to the guideline, highlighting that it does not make a recommendation that cannabis-based medical products should not be used in this instance.

Meanwhile, there are more than 50 conditions that private clinics in the UK prescribe medical cannabis for, according to Alternaleaf. But, while stigma remains to a degree (one in five Brits would feel judged by others for taking it) and it certainly won't be suitable for everyone, many believe medical cannabis should be more widely available on our health service due to the benefits.

Medical cannabis Peter Arquhard. and grandchildildren. (Supplied)
Peter Arquhard can now enjoy playing with his 11 grandchildren after years of not being able to. (Supplied)

Retired road construction and gardening landscaper Peter Arquhard, 60, from Nottingham, lives with chronic pain and says his life would be very different without medical cannabis.

"I now suffer with severe arthritis in both hands and arms and fibromyalgia, which left me unable to work. This causes me a lot of pain and stress and anxiety from not being able to do things I used to do," he explains.

Arquhard has a daytime flower and a nighttime flower that he vapes daily. "The cannabis medication plays a massive role in my pain management," he says. After finding Alternaleaf online and doing some research, he had a consultation with a specialist doctor, before receiving a tailored prescription.

"I did speak to my GP about alternative pain treatment, but the only option was physiotherapy and painkillers, which I found just made the pain even worse. The side effects of the tablets were impossible to live with," he explains.

"I have used cannabis for many years, but it was only last year that I discovered medical cannabis was legal in the UK. I couldn’t believe it. Now I can safely use the treatment I know works far better than anything my GP has given me, without worrying about doing anything illegal."

Picking up medical cannabis prescription
Do you think medical cannabis prescriptions should be more available on the NHS? (Getty Images)

Medical cannabis has helped Arquhard overcome limitations of his back pain and arthritis. "My life was [previously] controlled by pain, but I began to control it much better, allowing me to enjoy interacting with my 11 grandchildren, some of whom I have not picked up and cuddled since birth due to my illnesses," he says.

With everyday activities like holding a cup of tea or turning a door handle a challenge, it helps him "mask the pain", gives him "motivation to do normal everyday things without worrying" and helps with his mind. "It's the best option for me mentally and physically," he adds.

But Arquhard wishes it was more widely accessible. "I really hope it will be more available through the NHS soon. We are very behind compared to countries like Germany and the impact it could have on our health system would be astronomical," he believes. "It has been life changing for me, yet the treatment I've been offered by my GP has had the opposite effect. That's hard to comprehend."

There's also the cost – he spends around £100 a month on his medical cannabis, not something everyone can afford.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2023/11/08: Supporters from the End Our Pain Campaign march in Westminster during the demonstration on behalf of patients fighting to get a licence to use medical cannabis. (Photo by Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Supporters from the End Our Pain Campaign march in Westminster in 2023. (Getty Images)

"This is not an NHS decision. As with all medicines, manufacturers need to submit for both MHRA licensing and NICE appraisal to assess safety, clinical and cost effectiveness," says an NHS spokesperson.

NHS GP Dr Hana Patel points out that while there is some evidence medical cannabis can help certain types of pain, this is not yet strong enough to recommend it for pain relief. However in some cases it may be prescribed for pain as part of a clinical trial.

But, like Arquhard, many think medical cannabis being more available on the NHS would be safer. "I agree," says Dr Patel, "however in the NHS we practice evidence based medicine as supported by NICE and doctors work using guidelines and therefore have a narrow prescribing range on the NHS."

Could it become more available in the future?

Doctor consulting her patient
If seeking a prescription from a private clinic make sure you do your research on its reputation and safety. (Getty Images)

"I think with more research and evidence to support its use it might be," says Dr Patel.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson says, "Licensed cannabis-based medicines are routinely funded by the NHS where there is clear evidence of their quality, safety and effectiveness.

"We are taking an evidence-based approach to unlicensed cannabis-based treatments to ensure they are proved safe and effective before they can be considered for roll out on the NHS more widely.

"Whether to prescribe any medicine is a clinical decision the government cannot seek to influence."

For those who do seek prescriptions from private clinics, Dr Patel warns, "Do your research and ensure the clinician has a good reputation and is following evidence based guidelines."

Familiarise yourself with the NHS' info on medical cannabis, including what does and doesn't contain THC, and side effects.

Always consult a trusted professional about your medical history and only take medical cannabis if it's considered right for you. Cannabis is illegal recreationally in the UK.

Watch: Woman with functional neurological disorder ditches her wheelchair for rollerskates thanks to medicinal cannabis