The legalisation of cannabis on prescription has failed to deliver access for all, say advocates, as new figures reveal the growing gap between private and NHS prescribing.
New data has revealed the number of private and NHS cannabis prescriptions issued in England since the law change in November 2018.
According to figures released by NHS Business Service Authority (NHSBSA), a total of 89,239 prescriptions for unlicensed cannabis medicines were issued between November 2018 and July 2022.
However, all of these were obtained through the private sector, with fewer than five NHS prescriptions for unlicensed products.
In addition, there have been 11,976 NHS prescriptions for licensed cannabis medicines and 140 private prescriptions for these products.
As it stands there are only three licensed cannabis-based medications in the UK. These are Sativex, which is prescribed for spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, Epidyolex for seizures related to certain rare forms of epilepsy, and Nabilone which is used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
While whole-plant products are widely thought to have the most therapeutic benefit due to the fact they contain a range of cannabinoids and terpenes, to date none have been recommended for prescription on the NHS under guidelines set out by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
The data was shared by Health Minister Will Quince, during a parliamentary debate on Friday 13 January, following a question put to him by Labour MP for Warley, John Spellar.
Mr Quince confirmed that the exact number of NHS prescriptions for unlicensed cannabis products was being held under GDPR, due to the number of items attributed to ‘fewer than five patients’.
Three children in the UK are known to hold an NHS prescription for an unlicensed cannabis product, all of whom have intractable epilepsy.
On Monday 16 January, UK cannabis clinic, Zerenia Clinics (owned by Khiron Life Sciences) announced that a patient had successfully had the costs of their cannabis treatment and clinic fees reimbursed by the NHS.
Cannabis Health is still looking into this and awaiting confirmation on the route to access.
Legalisation hasn’t led to affordable access for all
The gap between the number of private prescriptions and those on the NHS, points to a significant challenge for many patients when it comes to accessing cannabis medicines, say advocates and industry insiders.
While medicinal cannabis has been legally available for over four years, more needs to be done to make it affordable for all, argues Zach Thompson, chair of patient advocacy group, PLEA (Patient-Led Engagement for Access).
“We must recognise that the mere legalisation of medicinal cannabis does not guarantee that everyone can access and benefit from it,” Mr Thompson told Cannabis Health.
“Regulators and the NHS have a crucial role in ensuring that medicinal cannabis is accessible and affordable for all individuals who need it.”
A recent survey conducted by PLEA found that over a third of patients (35%) are spending over £350 a month on their private prescription, with 46% paying between £150 – £300.
Mr Thompson highlighted the need to lower costs and provide financial assistance for patients who simply cannot afford this.
“Khiron Life Sciences has achieved a major milestone, receiving reimbursement from the NHS for costs of a cannabis-based treatment for a patient,” he continued.
“To truly make medicinal cannabis accessible to all, we must work to lower the cost, provide financial assistance to those in need, and ensure that medical professionals are properly trained to prescribe and administer it.”
He added: “Furthermore, we should collaborate with community organisations and advocacy groups to ensure that information about medicinal cannabis is easily accessible and disseminated, and that patients are able to navigate the process of obtaining medicinal cannabis with ease.”
Pressing the NHS for an improved system
The new figures come following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the UK Cannabis Industry Council (CIC) which found more than six in 10 NHS Foundation Trusts in England (61%) did not prescribe any cannabis-based medicines in 2021.
From 105 responses, 977 people were prescribed cannabis-based medicines through the NHS in 2021, equating to just nine individuals per trust.
The CIC says it is committed to ‘pressing’ NHS England to deliver an ‘improved system’.
“Whole plant cannabis medicines are widely understood to be the most effective in tackling a range of symptoms among patients. The fact that fewer than five patients are able to access these medicines on the NHS in England highlights the scale of the current challenge,” commented CEO, Mike Morgan-Giles.
“The Cannabis Industry Council is committed to pressing NHS England to deliver an improved system which works in the interests of patients, who include those with disabilities, mental health conditions, and children.”