It is five years since cannabis was legalised in the UK for medical use, but new research suggests there has been an increase in the number of people using cannabis illegally to try to treat their health conditions.
A YouGov poll, commissioned by medical cannabis clinic Sapphire Medical Clinics, claims 1.8 million people in the UK use the illegal cannabis market to alleviate symptoms – up by 29% from 2019.
Chris Cowan is one of them. In his smart semi-detached home, he looks a world away from the stereotypes associated with marijuana.
But for more than 30 years he took cannabis illegally to help the anxiety which came with his depression and PTSD.
“It’s pot luck with the type of cannabis that you get when you’re buying illicit cannabis, you don’t know the quality or the strength of it. There were times when I would take the illicit cannabis and it actually exacerbated symptoms,” he said.
Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018 which has allowed cannabis-based medicinal products to be prescribed by doctors on the General Medical Council’s specialist register. It can’t be prescribed by a GP.
Patients must receive a medical diagnosis and show evidence that licensed treatments have been tried without providing adequate symptom relief.
Some 32,000 people in the UK take medical cannabis. Chronic pain and anxiety are the two most common conditions for treatment.
But with £3.57bn being spent each year on buying illegal cannabis to self-medicate, Dr Mikael Sodergren, co-founder of Sapphire Medical Clinics, says people are putting themselves unnecessarily at risk.
“Medical cannabis has to go through a production process like all other medicines and that’s regulated. So there have to be tests done at all stages of the process to make sure we have the chemical compounds we say there are in the medicine.
“That obviously doesn’t exist in the illicit market, there’s no quality accountability.”
Mr Cowan was prescribed cannabis flowers for vaping a year ago and says it has been life-changing.
“The first thing I noticed is it alleviated my symptoms right away,” he said. “It doesn’t get me high, it doesn’t intoxicate me, it does the total opposite.”
While cannabis has been shown to be effective in helping people with epilepsy, some doctors argue there is a lack of evidence over whether it helps other conditions.
A government spokesperson said: “The most significant barrier to access licensed cannabis-based products funded by the NHS is the lack of evidence on the quality, safety, and clinical and cost-effectiveness. In the absence of this evidence, clinicians will remain reticent to prescribe and decisions cannot be made on NHS funding. That is why the government is focused on generating research.”
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