Specialists to Legally Prescribe Cannabis-Derived Medicinal Products by the Autumn

Nicky Broyd

July 26, 2018

Specialist doctors will be able to prescribe cannabis-derived medicines by the autumn, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced.

He'd ordered two expert reviews of current legislation following high profile cases involving children, including Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, who were blocked from access to cannabis oil treatment for severe epilepsy.

The first review by the Government's Chief Medical Advisor, Professor Dame Sally Davies, found there was evidence that medicinal cannabis can have therapeutic benefits.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) then recommended that products meeting a clear definition of cannabis-derived medicinal products should be placed in Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 – this covers drugs that have therapeutic value but are highly addictive. The Department of Health and Social Care and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will work on those definitions.

Guidelines will also be developed for the safe prescribing of such products with safeguards put in place to help avoid them being traded illegally.

Sick Children

In a statement, Mr Javid said: "Recent cases involving sick children made it clear to me that our position on cannabis-related medicinal products was not satisfactory.

"That is why we launched a review and set up an expert panel to advise on licence applications in exceptional circumstances.

"Following advice from two sets of independent advisers, I have taken the decision to reschedule cannabis-derived medicinal products – meaning they will be available on prescription."

However, he made it clear general use of cannabis will remain illegal.

"This will help patients with an exceptional clinical need but is in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use."

Until the new rules are in place, clinicians can continue to apply to the independent expert panel for patients who might benefit from access to cannabis-based medication.
 

'Exceptional News'

Cannabis based medicine may have benefits for symptom management in some patients with multiple sclerosis. Reacting to the announcement, Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, said: "This is exceptional news and we want to thank the Home Secretary for the speed at which this decision has been made. We started campaigning for cannabis for MS exactly a year ago and it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come since then. The priority now has to be making sure everyone who could benefit can access cannabis in a safe and responsible way.
 
"This life-changing decision could help thousands with the condition who haven’t been able to find relief for their pain and muscle spasms."

Also commenting, Dr Tom Freeman, senior academic fellow, King's College London, said: "The Home Secretary should be commended for his decision to remove cannabis-based medicinal products from Schedule 1. By commissioning two reviews, the Home Secretary was able to inform his decision using scientific evidence, clearly showing that cannabis-based products have medical value. This decision will be widely welcomed by the research community."

However, Ian Hamilton, lecturer in mental health, University of York, said: "This appears to be a very conservative decision by the Home Secretary as he could have opted for a lower schedule [1 is high 5 is low]. Unfortunately this adds to the lack of credibility in the approach to cannabis policy as everyone knows that opiates and cannabis pose different risks yet they are now both schedule 2 drugs."

Dr Mike Linney, registrar and chair of the Ethics Committee of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said: "Cannabis-derived medicinal products have been shown to improve the quality of life for some children suffering with conditions such as severe epilepsy. This decision will come as a relief for these families, as it grants hope for other potential life enhancing treatment options." 

He cautions: "I must stress the importance of parents not giving children unlicensed cannabinoid oil products. There is currently no clear evidence to suggest that they are safe or effective in treating medical conditions, and there is a serious risk that they will interfere with prescribed medications that the child is taking."

Editor's note: This article was updated to include RCPCH comment.

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