Key Points

  • Medical cannabis was leglised l in the UK in 2018.
  • Medical cannabis prescriptions are highly controlled by the NHS.
  • Licensed companies can legally grow cannabis in the UK for medical use.
  • Recreational use of cannabis is still illegal in the UK.
  • Only specialist doctors can prescribe medical cannabis legally. 

In 2018, medical cannabis became legal to prescribe in the UK. But it is not as simple as walking into your GP’s office and getting a prescription for medical cannabis. In fact, medical cannabis is highly controlled, leaving many to still ask: is medical cannabis legal in the UK? 

History of legalisation of medical cannabis in the UK

The earliest clinical appearance of cannabis as a medical drug was in an 1843 medical article that reported its effectiveness on a wide range of conditions including cholera, tetanus, joint pain and seizures. 

For decades, cannabis was known as a ‘wonder cure’ for a range of pains and nausea until recreational use of this drug became illegal in 1928 as part of the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act. Medical cannabis remained legal until it was included in the 1971 Dangerous Drugs Act, where it was set as a Class B drug, as it remains today. 

Yet, that is not where the story ends for medical cannabis legalisation in the UK. In 2004, cannabis was reclassified as a less dangerous Class C drug. It kept this status for five years before being reclassified as a Class B drug again. 

By this point, there was growing evidence that cannabis could help long-term pain in patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia. Eventually, the UK legalised medical cannabis in 2018. 

Even before 2018, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) noted that: 

“Both delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (e.g., as nabilone) and a mixture of delta-9-THC and cannabidiol (as Sativex, made from whole plant extracts) have been licensed medicines in the UK for over a decade.”

While today, medical cannabis is considered legal in the UK, accessing a prescription is not so straightforward, and the dispensing of the drug is heavily regulated. 

Regulation of medical cannabis in the UK

At the moment, only certain practitioners can prescribe medical cannabis. The NHS is limited to prescribing legal medical cannabis for patients with certain health conditions, including: 

  • Patients suffering from certain types of epilepsy
  • Adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy
  • People with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis

It is perhaps for this reason that the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reports that no NHS prescriptions were made in the year after medical cannabis became legal in the UK. This small number of medical cannabis prescriptions is also attributed to a perceived lack of evidence and risk of side effects, according to the BMJ. Interestingly, cannabis was a licensed medicine in the UK before 1971, so there is precedent for medical cannabis use in healthcare. 

However, private practices are prescribing medical cannabis and giving patients a way to get their medication without resorting to buying uncontrolled cannabis on the black market. 

How do I access legal medical cannabis?

Private medical practices have more freedom to prescribe medical cannabis for a wider range of conditions and symptoms. You will still need to show that you can meet certain criteria. Plus, patients are also often required to present evidence showing that they have tried two other forms of medication to treat their symptoms.

While it is clear that accessing medical cannabisis more straightforward through private practices, your high-street pharmacist is unlikely to dispense the medicine. 

A 2020 report from the British Medical Journal explains that: “from consulting with parents and patients, prescribers, pharmacists and decision-makers, it seems that there are a series of distinct barriers to prescribing that need to be overcome in order to improve patient access to medical cannabis in the UK. These include concerns about the perceived lack of scientific evidence.” 

Keep in mind that the cannabis medicine your doctor prescribes must be approved by the Medical Healthcare Agency (MHRA) and the Home Office. For this reason, there are specialist pharmacists who dispense the medicine. 

This can add an extra layer of complexity to accessing the medicine and will add to the confusion about medical cannabis being legal in the UK. 

Does cannabis have a PR problem?

One of the reasons that you might have difficulty accessing a medical cannabis prescription despite it being legal in the UK is that there is a certain perception of cannabis, especially among lawmakers.

As cannabis is still a Class B substance in the UK, it comes with connotations of smoking – which is in itself unhealthy. Additionally, there is often a misconception that the usage of cannabis can cause schizophrenia which is not scientifically proven, yet the association persists. 

A study by Ashley C. Proal and Dr. Lynn E. DeLisi of Harvard Medical School found that the risk of schizophrenia is a result of genetics rather than any outside factors. 

Is it legal to grow medical cannabis in the UK? 

Adding to the spider web of laws around cannabis is the surprising fact that 44.9% of medical cannabis is grown in the UK and that the UK is one of the biggest exporters of medical cannabis.

However, individuals cannot legally grow medical cannabis themselves, only licensed companies can. The UK may not appear to have the best growing conditions for a plant that enjoys lots of light and warm weather, yet cannabis farmers can successfully grow medical  cannabis with greenhouses that have artificial lights and plenty of airflow. 

Why get access to legal medical cannabis? 

Specialist doctors can prescribe the correct type and dosage of cannabis to treat your conditions while also considering other factors in your life. Getting the right balance of cannabinoids in the treatment is essential, as the levels of THC and CBD are crucial to the efficacy of the medicine. 

Sourcing medical cannabis from legal practitioners means that you know the levels of THC and CBD in your dosage and that the benefits can be monitored to improve your quality of life.  

There are significant risks in buying cannabis on the illicit market when you cannot access a prescription on the NHS, including not knowing the specific levels of THC and CBD as well as the purity of the substance you’re consuming. 

Is cannabis legal in the UK for medical reasons? 

Yes, medical cannabis is legal in the UK, but that does not mean that all people who need the medication can access it. The conditions for a prescription are limited on the NHS at the moment. Until this changes and the laws around medical cannabis relax, the best option is to contact a specialist private practice to make sure that you can take the medication safely and ensure its efficacy.

Conclusion

Is cannabis legal in the UK for medical reasons? The short answer is yes, but as you can see in this post, accessing medical cannabis through the NHS is complex. However, you can get a legal prescription for medical cannabis in the UK through specialist doctors. Get in touch with The Medical Cannabis Clinics now to schedule a virtual consultation and get a medical cannabis prescription in the UK.

FAQs

How do I get a prescription for medical cannabis?

You have two routes to take for a medical cannabis prescription. The NHS option is only available to people who: Have one of two forms of severe epilepsy, suffer from MS or chemotherapy-related nausea Have already tried other methods of treatment Have had medical cannabis prescribed to them by a specialist doctor at a hospital You can also get a prescription for medical cannabis through private practices. You may still need to have exhausted other treatments first, but private practices can prescribe medical cannabis for a range of conditions, including: Crohn’s Disease Chronic pain Anxiety, stress or depression Seizures Spasticity PTSD Endometriosis /PCOS Terminal cancers Kidney failure Parkinson’s Alzheimer’s Congestive Heart Failure Multiple Sclerosis Leukaemia and Lymphoma To get a private prescription, you will first need to make an appointment for a consultation where the doctor will discuss your symptoms, medical history and how the condition is impacting your life. They will then decide if medical cannabis is right for you.

How do I take medical cannabis?

Medical cannabis is prescribed either as an oil that you take under the tongue or as a flower which you can vape. It is still illegal to smoke medical cannabis in the UK.

References

https://www.bmj.com/content/s1-5/123/363

https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/9/e038687

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24309013

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/cannabis-legal-uk-worlds-largest-producer-marijuana-weed-un-body-findings-a8243921.html