Although the United Kingdom (U.K.) legalized medical cannabis in 2018, it has not approved any clinical studies and is not widely available as a prescription through the country’s National Health Services (NHS).
A recent report from Sky News provided an update on the NHS, stating that no studies have been funded to help explore the efficacy of medical cannabis yet. However, U.K.-based Celadon Pharmaceuticals recently began a clinical trial featuring 5,000 patients who suffer from chronic pain.
Earlier this year in March, Celadon Pharmaceuticals became the first company in the U.K. to be licensed by the British government, called the Home Office, to sell its products to private clinics that are legally allowed to prescribe cannabis.
At first Celadon Pharmaceuticals conducted a preliminary study, examining 500 patients and found that cannabis did help reduce patients’ reliance on opioids, and also helped improve sleep. This past summer, both the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the NHS Research Ethics Committee approved of the larger Celadon clinical trial.
“As an approved Trial, it is believed to be the only one of its kind in the U.K., and is designed to create a data set that will support doctors’ prescriptions of cannabis-based medicines, and in time enable potential reimbursement by the NHS and insurance companies,” the company wrote in a press release this summer. “It also enables General Practitioners to prescribe the medicine to patients in addition to specialist doctors, and organisations such as charities can advertise recruitment for the Trial. The Company believes this to be a major advance in enabling much wider access for patients, ultimately leading to the opening up of the UK market for cannabis-based medicines.”
Celadon’s co-founder, James Short, more recently told Sky News that first and foremost, his business is a pharmaceutical company, not a cannabis company. “We’ve got to try and get away from the stigma. When I first got involved in the business I was nervous to even talk about it with friends,” Short said. “But our job is not to get people high. It’s to give them a better quality of life.”
Numerous patients, especially parents of young patients, have spoken out in favor of medical cannabis, and called the government to take action so that it could be more accessible and affordable for families. Hannah Deacon and her son Alfie Dingley, Emma Appleby and her daughter Teagan, Emma Matthews and her son Louis, Matt Hughes and his son Charlie, and Karen Gray and her son Murray from Scotland are just a few recognizable names of U.K.-based parents fighting for their kids’ rights to cannabis and an improved quality of life.
Families outside of the U.K. such as Irish mother Vera Twomey had called upon their own governments for improved treatment opportunities for her daughter, Ava, who suffered from Dravet syndrome. Sadly, Ava passed away earlier this year in May at age 13.
While there are many firsthand accounts of medical cannabis helping patients, U.K. doctors still remain hesitant. “In the aftermath of what happened with opioids the medical community is understandably a little bit skeptical about introducing a new drug without really robust evidence,” said NHS consultant and British Pain Society spokesperson, Dr. Alan Fayaz. “The opioid epidemic has perhaps done cannabis a bit of a disservice because it’s tainted ground.”
Furthermore, Fayaz said that the 2018 law change coming before clinical evidence was clear has been harmful to the cause. “It creates this bizarre two-tiered system which actually doesn’t advantage the patients on the NHS and it doesn’t really advantage the patients in the private sector either,” Fayaz explained. “I think what we need is the research to be able to identify the role cannabis will play.”
Currently only patients who manage a private prescription are able to gain access, which is incredibly expensive. Sky News spoke with Chad Martin, who pays £300 per month ($378 USD) to obtain medical cannabis to treat his arthritis. “I am fortunate to be able to afford the drug. Others can’t,” Martin explained. Initially his doctor prescribed opioids to treat his condition.
His cannabis medicine of choice is a cannabis inhaler, which helps treat pain and inflammation flare-ups. “When the weather changes, arthritis can affect you regardless, but cannabis has worked way better than anything else I’ve taken in the past,” Martin said.
The Home Office launched its cannabis review in June 2018. At the same time, the Home Secretary also announced that Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell would be granted a license to legally obtain cannabis to treat their conditions.
In 2019, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) decided that there wasn’t enough evidence that medical cannabis can help patients who suffer from epilepsy. Later in March 2021, NICE updated its 2019 stance on medical cannabis, clarifying that “There is no recommendation against the use of cannabis-based medicinal products.” Two years later in March 2023, NICE approved Epidyolex, a CBD-based medicine, for those who suffer from tuberous sclerosis complex.