Key Points

  • Medical cannabis is legal in the UK if you get a prescription from the NHS or a registered private doctor.
  • It is still illegal to grow or buy cannabis without a prescription.
  • There is more research underway to help increase access to medical cannabis.
  • Attitudes towards cannabis use are changing but the law does not always reflect this. 

Medical cannabis laws in the UK changed dramatically in 2018. Currently, you can access medical cannabis if you have a prescription from either the NHS or a registered private doctor. But it is still illegal to smoke cannabis flower – even if you have a prescription – and to possess cannabis bought from any other source. 

Cannabis is still a Class B drug in the UK, so if you are found in possession of a substance that is not prescribed medical cannabis, you could face up to five years in prison. 

History of Cannabis Law in the UK

In the 1800s, cannabis was legal in the UK and throughout most of the world. At the time, it was hailed as a panacea for many illnesses, including cholera, tetanus, joint pains, and seizures.

Attitudes towards the substance changed in the early twentieth century, and by 1928, it became illegal under the 1920 Drugs Act. In 1971, cannabis was classified as a Class B substance under the Dangerous Drugs Act. Aside from a brief period at the turn of the century when it became a Class C drug, it remains a Class B substance today. 

Due to cannabis’ status as a Class B substance, there were very few scientific studies that explored the benefits of using cannabis as a medicine to help people with certain conditions. This is slowly changing with the help of studies conducted by different groups and organisations, such as Twenty21, which aims to gather UK data on cannabis studies to understand its efficacy in treating patients. 

In 2018, it became legal for doctors to prescribe medical cannabis, and the medicine was made available on the NHS and through private care for certain conditions. However, cannabis still remains illegal to buy through any other sources. 

A trial is due to begin later this year in three London Boroughs where young people aged between 18 and 24 years who were found in possession of cannabis will be prosecuted. The outcome of this trial could see further changes in the law or policing with regard to this substance. 

Why is it Difficult to Get Cannabis on the NHS if it’s Legal? 

While it may be legal for doctors to prescribe medical cannabis, it’s not so easy to get a prescription on the NHS. Medical cannabis is heavily regulated, and the NICE guidelines are strict on the criteria around NHS prescriptions. 

Firstly, the person who’s trying to obtain a prescription through the NHS must have one of four conditions:

  • Dravet syndrome 
  • Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Nausea developed as a result of chemotherapy treatment

Secondly, the person needs to have tried at least two other treatments before their GP can refer them to a specialist doctor. It is this specialist doctor who will then need to decide if medical cannabis is the right option for the patient’s needs. 

This creates many barriers to cannabis access, and even though there is data that allows a wider scope of conditions for private prescriptions, it is not possible to get an NHS prescription outside of these limitations. 

The NHS states that it expects few people to meet the criteria for a medical cannabis prescription. This is evident in how few people are able to access these prescriptions. For instance, only 18 people received a prescription in 2019.

However, you should keep in mind that private practitioners have much more leeway when prescribing medical cannabis, so if you’re interested in obtaining a prescription, we recommend making an appointment with one of our specialists at The Medical Cannabis Clinics. 

Problems with Cannabis Perception

Some of the issues around accessing legal medical cannabis are associated with the fact that progress around changes in law and NICE guidelines is slow. Drug Science reports that there is also slow progress with research into how medical cannabis can help fibromyalgia and chronic neuropathic pain in adults, plus chronic pain in children and young people.

This all holds up the process of opening up medical cannabis for use with more conditions and symptoms. 

Part of the problem is that cannabis has a certain perception in society despite 72% of people in the UK being supportive of legalising cannabis in its entirety.

Conditions that Make Patients Eligible for Medical Cannabis 

While the NHS has a very short list of conditions eligible for medical cannabis prescriptions, private practices can prescribe cannabis for a wider range of medical needs.

These can include: 

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Appetite loss
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • HIV and AIDs
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Eating disorders
  • Epilepsy
  • Glaucoma
  • Endometriosis /PCOS
  • Mental health conditions, including PTSD, anxiety and depression 
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Wasting Syndrome

You need to have a diagnosis of one of these conditions with your GP to start the process of getting a prescription for cannabis in the UK. If you are suffering from one or more of these conditions then you might be eligible for a prescription within the medical cannabis laws. 

If you are eligible, you need to make a consultation appointment with a specialist private medical firm to assess your needs and whether medical cannabis is right for you. Contact The Medical Cannabis Clinics now to make an appointment.

Can I Get Medical Cannabis in the UK Without a Diagnosis of a Condition? 

If you do not have an eligible condition, you will need to wait until your condition qualifies for medical cannabis use. Often, this requires additional research into the benefits and risks.  

Conclusion

If you have qualifying conditions, then you can legally access medical cannabis with a prescription in the UK. Cannabis bought from the illicit market is still illegal, even if you’re buying it for your medical condition. It is always better to get the right prescription from a medical professional such as an expert at The Medical Cannabis Clinics to match your needs. This way, you can also be sure of the quality and contents of your medicine. 

It is also hoped that data will continue to support the campaigns for more widespread and easier access to medical cannabis so that people suffering can find the help they need. 

FAQs

How do I get a prescription for Sativex?

Sativex is the name of one of the two licensed medical cannabis medications. You can get a prescription through specialist private doctors for a wide range of conditions in the UK. First, you will need to book a consultation at a dedicated clinic like The Medical Cannabis Clinics and a doctor will access your records before meeting with you. You will then be able to explain how your condition is impacting your life and ask questions at your consultation. If Sativex is right for your needs, your doctor will prescribe the medication, and you will need to order it from a specific pharmacy. You cannot get Sativex through your GP, although if you meet certain criteria, they may make a referral to an NHS doctor. It is quicker and easier to access Sativex through a private practice.

Can you get medical cannabis for ADHD in the UK?

It may be possible to get medical cannabis for ADHD in the UK through a specialist private practice. You cannot get medical cannabis for ADHD on the NHS but it is still legal to take the medication on prescription from a registered private doctor.

How to get a medical cannabis prescription in the UK?

To conclude, your best route to getting a medical cannabis prescription in the UK is through a private practice rather than the NHS. You still need to have an eligible condition and have tried other options. It is not recommended to buy cannabis on the illicit market to treat your symptoms.

References

  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/s1-5/123/363
  2. https://www.drugscience.org.uk/twenty21/
  3. https://pharmaceutical-journal.com/article/news/nhs-provides-just-18-prescriptions-for-cannabis-based-medical-products-in-2019
  4. https://www.drugscience.org.uk/3-years-since-the-uk-legalised-medical-cannabis-and-only-3-nhs-prescriptions/
  5. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/will-cannabis-be-legal-decriminalised-us-laws-sadiq-khan-b998931.html
  6. https://cms.law/en/int/expert-guides/cms-expert-guide-to-a-legal-roadmap-to-cannabis/united-kingdom
  7. https://www.england.nhs.uk/medicines-2/support-for-prescribers/cannabis-based-products-for-medicinal-use/cannabis-based-products-for-medicinal-use-frequently-asked-questions/