Medical cannabis import restrictions lifted for UK patients

Doctor prescribes medical cannabis in his practice
© iStock/Esther Kelleter

Medical cannabis patients in the UK will now have faster access to their prescriptions thanks to new changes on import restrictions.

The UK government has now approved changes to import restrictions to ensure that people with prescriptions for cannabis-based products for medical use do not have their treatment delayed or interrupted.

Until now, patients have been faced with long waits, sometimes up to three months, for their prescriptions, which are imported from countries such as Canada on a named patient basis. The changes mean that patients with conditions such as rare and serious forms of epilepsy or multiple sclerosis will be able to access their medicines in days rather than months.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “I have taken swift action to allow specialist doctors to issue prescriptions for cannabis-based medicinal products, when they consider their patients would benefit from this treatment.

“This will allow patients and their families with challenging conditions to access them more easily, when appropriate, to ensure they can be treated in days, not months.”

Licensed wholesalers will now be able to:

  • Import larger quantities of cannabis-based products; and
  • Hold supplies for future use by patients with prescriptions.

Safeguards for patients

In addition, safeguards against addiction and the misuse of drugs mean that patients with prescriptions for unlicensed medicines, such as medicinal cannabis, need to have their prescription reviewed every 30 days by specialist doctors. This can lead to delays in treatment if there are also delays to imports.

The new measures, implemented by the Home Office and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), will take effect from 2 March.

It follows changes to the law implemented in October 2018 allowing specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use where clinically appropriate in the UK.

Reducing import costs and advancing medical cannabis research

The government is working with industry to explore further ways to reduce costs and encourage more research into uninterrupted access to cannabis-based medicinal products where clinically appropriate.

The government will also continue to engage with medical associations and patients to build evidence, using trials in the UK to accelerate our understanding of how medicinal cannabis can benefit patients. This is necessary for wider prescribing by NHS clinicians in future.

In November last year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended two cannabis-based medicinal products for patients with multiple sclerosis and hard-to-treat forms of epilepsy.

The Department of Health and Social Care continues to work closely with NHS England-NHS Improvement (NHSE-I) and the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) to establish clinical trials to develop the evidence base to support further commissioning decisions.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Every time I meet the families of young people dealing so bravely with childhood epilepsy, I am reminded of just how much they have been through.

“The changes made today are a tremendous step towards improving the supply of cannabis-based medicinal products by helping to ensure quicker and more reliable access for patients.

“We still have a long way to go. We need more research into the quality and safety of these medicines, and to do all we can to cut down the costs and remove barriers so that, when appropriate, patients can access it, including on the NHS.”

Welcome news for patients

A delegation from the Centre for Medical Cannabis met with Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, and senior officials to at DHSC to explore the fine details of the plans to implement the new measures.

Dr Andy Yates, Pharmacy Lead, at the Centre for Medical Cannabis, said: “Today’s announcement will be warmly welcomed by patients, carers and clinicians alike. It’s crucial as we build the evidence required to realise the potential of cannabis-based medicinal products that there are no unnecessary impediments to accessing prescriptions.

“We are grateful that the government has listened to the valid concerns expressed by our members and responded with measures that will immediately improve access to these novel medicines and accelerate clinical understanding of their use. We look forward to working on the finer details of how this can now be implemented.”

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