“Why can no one get it?”: The Story of Marijuana Legalisation in the UK

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Marijuana was legalised for medicinal use in November 2018 – so why is no one getting it?

Introduced by then home secretary Sajid Javid, following campaigns calling for updates to NHS treatment, medical marijuana was legalised for the prescription by medical professionals on a case-by-case basis. But only a handful of people have received a prescription. Patients need to persuade specialists that cannabis is the right option, obtain licenses for cannabis-based products, and organise transport once the drugs are in the UK.

The problem also lies with the research. “[Doctors] don’t value or trust foreign data,” explained Alex Fraser, from Grow Biotech, a medical cannabis research and advocacy firm, “and that traditional ways of studying medicine won’t necessarily work for cannabis. We’ve seen a huge reluctance from doctors and pharmacies to risk their licenses.”

In December 2019, after more than a year, NICE published a recommendation for Epidyolex (a cannabis-based medicine) to be prescribed to NHS patients. However, this included only two rare forms of epilepsy (which affect roughly 8,000 people in the UK) and only 25% of patients are expected to qualify. Many continue to pay thousands for privately prescribed marijuana.

Lucy Stafford has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and has spent nine years on strong opiates to manage the pain, most recently a synthetic 50 times more potent than heroin. She became dependent on the powerful painkillers and her vomiting was so severe that she required intravenous rehydration. It wasn’t until after a dislocated jaw and a failed surgery, that she was prescribed a cannabis-based medicine in a desperate attempt to preserve her quality of life. “This prescription saved my life,” she told The Guardian. “I feel like I’ve become myself for the first time.”

But Lucy had to pay a £250 consultation fee and then £1,500 a month for her initial cannabis products, no small feat for a disabled student.

For patients relying on the NHS, there is significantly less success. Matt Hancock, health secretary, claimed in April 2019 that more than 80 children have been given NHS prescriptions but pressure groups have argued that there has not been a single new NHS prescription for a medicine in which THC is the dominant ingredient. And restrictions are tightening; the mother of a nine-year-old girl, who sometimes has up to 300 seizures a day, had a supply of medical cannabis confiscated while trying to enter the UK in April 2019. “To see a system where only families with money can access medical cannabis is a betrayal of the NHS,” she said.

Carly Barton, a campaigner for United Patients Alliance, uses medical marijuana to relieve her chronic pain. After an NHS doctor wrote her prescription, it was blocked by the local clinical commissioning group “on the basis that there is not enough evidence” for its worth. “I am now left with no other choice than to return to being a criminal. I am a criminal only because I can not maintain a £1,400-a-month prescription.”

“Severely disabled patients who rely on their medical cannabis live in daily fear of arrest for growing their own medicine,” said Baroness Meacher, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform. There is evidence of a growing number of people in the UK using marijuana to self-medicate.

Marijuana can be used to treat muscle spasms, nausea, poor appetite and weight loss, seizure disorders, Crohn’s disease, cancer, migraines, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, chronic pain, end of life care, insomnia, and mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, and PTSD). Because of its range, more people are turning towards self-medicating with illegally obtained and unregulated cannabis, feeling let down by the NHS.

In a survey of Lancaster University students, 21% said that they would use cannabis sooner than other prescribed medications to self-medicate and 13% admitted to having done so.

We spoke to three first-year students about their thoughts on the legalisation of cannabis:

It works in Canada and several US states without a problem and it’s going to happen here, eventually. I think it should be entirely legalised, we need to go the full mile and not just half-heart this if we want to do it right.

More money would be going into the government which could be dispersed to services that need funding, it would give people more freedom, and alternative treatments for complex illnesses and diseases. There are a lot of people that need it for medicinal purposes but can’t access it on the NHS, for whatever reason, so it would be more accessible for patients if it was fully legalised. I mean, it’s worth a try. It’s never killed anyone, has it?

(Earth and Environmental Sciences BSc, aged 19)

I’m sort of on the fence. As an intermittent cannabis user myself, I guess my opinion should be to legalise it. That way people could use it without shame and it could be taxed to have more money for things like mental health services, etc. But, to be honest I don’t know.

The cannabis culture here is different. In Amsterdam, it is kept in coffee shops, people can grow their own for personal use, and it’s treated almost like alcohol – just like people can meet up in a bar and have a drink, they can meet up in a coffee shop to chill. But attitudes are different here. I know lots of people who smoke all day every day (which to me seems like a problem because, if it was alcohol, they would be an alcoholic) and people do it for the wrong reasons. I think legalisation could lead to problems and people’s attitudes are not as progressive as places like Amsterdam or Canada.

I personally treat weed the same way as alcohol, sometimes I come home on a Friday night and open a bottle of wine and sometimes I roll a joint but not everyone thinks this way. It would be nice to not have the fear of being caught or judged for smoking weed, though. Especially since I want to go into law and having something as small as being caught with a joint on my record could jeopardise my career.

(Law LLB Hons, aged 19)

I feel like if it was legalised then it has the potential for people to try worse and worse drugs afterwards – it’s a gateway drug.

(Mathematics BSc Hons, aged 18)

A group of cross-party MPs, who travelled to Canada (where cannabis is legal) have predicted that the UK will fully legalise its use within five to ten years and perhaps we’re already seeing it move that way. In a survey of Lancaster University students, there were as many users as non-users of cannabis (49.33% either way; February 2020).

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