Faster access to medical cannabis for UK patients

Since 2018, medicinal cannabis has been made legal in the UK but since that time only a small number of patients have been given prescriptions, as access to medicinal cannabis has been made very difficult. However, it has been recently revealed by the government, that patients who need these cannabis-based medicines should no longer face long delays when accessing prescriptions.

The government has made recent changes to medicinal cannabis import restrictions to allow patients to access their treatment without interruption or delay. These changes mean that licensed wholesalers will now be allowed to import greater amounts of cannabis-based products, as well as holding supplies for future prescriptions. Most cannabis-based medicines are imported from abroad rather than being made in the UK, and prior to this change, only the amount for individual prescriptions could be imported, with no bulk orders allowed. These changes mean that patients suffering from certain conditions, including rare and serious forms of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, will now be able to access their medicines in days instead of months. The home secretary, Priti Patel, supported these changes when she said, ‘this will allow patients and their families with challenging conditions to access them more easily, when appropriate, to ensure they can be treated in days, not months.’

There are still safeguards in place to protect patients against addictions and any drug misuse, this will be done by prescriptions for any unlicensed medicines, such as medical cannabis, will have their prescriptions reviewed by specialist doctors every 30 days. This, unfortunately, can lead to further delays of treatment if there are already delays to imports. These new changes were implemented at the beginning of March this year by the Home Office and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). These changes follow the UK legalisation of cannabis-based products in October 2018, which allowed specialist doctors to prescribe medical cannabis if clinically appropriate.

The government is now working with the medicinal cannabis industry to look into any further ways that can reduce the costs of medicine for patients as well as encouraging advanced research into undisturbed access to medical cannabis when prescribed. As well as the medicinal cannabis industry, the government is also continuing its relationship with medical associations and patients to collect data and evidence, using UK trials to further the understanding of the benefits of the drugs on patients. This further research and continued relationships will mean better prescribing by NHS clinicians in the future. Matt Hancock, the Health and Social Care Secretary, has said on the changes that they are ‘a tremendous step towards improving the supply of cannabis-based medicinal products by helping to ensure quicker and more reliable access for patients...We still have a long way to go. We need more research into the quality and safety of these medicines, and to do all we can to cut down the costs and remove barriers so that, when appropriate, patients can access it, including on the NHS.’

These changes to import restrictions have been welcomed by patients and stakeholders, as they continue to battle the waiting times for the cannabis-based medicines. It is well-known that the waiting time can be very long for patients to receive their prescriptions, however it is hopeful that these changes are a step in the right direction.