When the law in the UK was changed in November 2018 to allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to some patients, it felt like the country was taking a big step forward in the battle to break down the taboo about cannabis and help very sick people to get the medication that they need.

However, the reality that we are seeing is that many people who could benefit from it are not able to get medical marijuana prescribed for them, and so they are continuing to have to try to get it from abroad and bring it into the country illegally.

Medical Marijuana and the Endocannabinoid System

Medical marijuana is made from particular strains of cannabis which are rich in certain compounds that can help your health.

The cannabis plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years and it was only in 1928 that it was actually classified as an illicit drug. This is due to the fact that when one of the compounds in the plant is taken, it can make you feel ‘high’. Even more recently, however, scientists have been able to see what the health benefits of the compounds in cannabis are and are gradually loosening the laws on it.

Compounds such as CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) are known as cannabinoids. When they are consumed, they can affect a system in the human body called the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system relies on the interaction between endocannabinoids (cannabinoids made naturally in the body) and cannabinoid receptors and is responsible for regulating a number of functions in the body. When you take cannabinoids (cannabinoids which aren’t produced in the body, such as CBD and THC), these can also interact with the cannabinoid receptors and help the endocannabinoid system work better.

Medical Marijuana and the Law in the UK

In the UK, some of the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant are legal to buy, sell and use. CBD is one of these and this is why it is relatively easy to get hold of. CBD has many benefits to your general health as well as being able to help with some more specific health issues.

THC, on the other hand is a little more complicated. When THC is taken it can affect the endocannabinoid system in a different way to CBD, often making the CBD more effective and providing extra health benefits. However, THC is the compound which makes you ‘high’.

For this reason, THC is regulated a lot more closely, with ‘legal levels’ being less than 0.2% in the UK. This means that CBD products that are made from hemp – a strain of cannabis with THC levels of less that 0.2%, is legal and won’t make you high.

When it comes to medical marijuana, however, things are a bit more complicated.

For some people, higher levels of THC than are ‘legal’ are needed to get the medicinal effect that they need. The changes in the law that we saw last year have made it legal for doctors to prescribe these products – known as ‘medical marijuana’.

As it stands, the law says that medical marijuana can only be prescribed for the following:

  •         Children and adults with some severe, rare forms of epilepsy
  •         Adults with nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy
  •         People with spasticity due to MS who have tried other medications

CBD and THC products have been proven to help to reduce the number of seizures, reduce nausea and vomiting and help with pain relief.

CBD, THC and Doctors in the UK

Medical marijuana is prescribed to people by specialist doctors, but due to a number of reasons, medication just isn’t getting to patients – many of them young children.

  •         The Legal status of cannabis has meant that there is only a limited amount of clinical data available, resulting firstly in a reluctancy for doctors to prescribe medical cannabis, also a difficulty in prescribing the most effective dosages. As different doses can have different effects on people, it can be difficult for doctors to know what dose to give.
  •         Doctors and pharmacies risk their licences if they get it wrong and many don’t feel like they know enough about medical cannabis.
  •         Even if patients or parents of children who need it can get a prescription for medical cannabis, there are most obstacles in the way in terms of actually getting hold of it. Many pharmacies don’t stock medical cannabis products and can have difficulty getting it.
  •         Delivery drivers who would need to deliver medical cannabis products to the pharmacies will also need to have a licence.
  •         Whilst there aren’t many people who are being legally prescribed medical marijuana products, it can take a long time for chemists to get hold of. Many medical marijuana products have use-by dates which can make the process complicated.

Although this is frustrating for those who need medical marijuana medication, it should be remembered that this kind of challenges have been present in many places when they have changed their laws, but the situation has got better for them.

All of this put together has meant that it is still very difficult for people to get hold of the medical marijuana which can help them so much.

Last Resort

The recent case of Emma Appleby – the mother of nine-year-old Teagan Appleby – highlights the battle that many families are facing. As it is so difficult to actually get hold of the medication, they are resorting to getting it in any way possible.

There are countries in Europe which can give people prescriptions for the medications that they need, and some desperate parents are going to these countries to buy the medication.

Unfortunately, it is not legal to bring these medications into the UK and this is why many of these parents are having it taken off them if they get detected at airports.

It is heartbreaking that we are seeing parents have to go through this in an attempt to get the medication that their children or family members need so much. The medication is also very expensive and the fact that families are prepared to find the money and take the risks are testament to how important it is to get these medications.

We have seen a few high-profile cases of parents fighting to get these medications to their children, such as that of Hannah Deacon – the mother of Alfie Digby, a seven-year-old who also has epilepsy. These cases are offering a glimmer of hope. Hannah Deacon has recently become the first person to be allowed to bring oil with THC in, over the UK border.

Whilst there is hope that individuals might be allowed to bring these medications into the country, the real battle is in getting medical cannabis available to everyone who needs it in this country, through the NHS. However, until we see better education for health professionals to give them the confidence to prescribe, and a process which actually makes the supply of medical cannabis possible, we are likely to see more and more parents having to take these risks.

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