Government Lifts Import Curbs on Cannabis-based Medicines

Peter Russell

March 03, 2020

Patients prescribed cannabis-based products should be able to receive their treatment in days rather than months, the Government said.

Changes to import restrictions mean that licenced wholesalers will be able to import larger quantities of cannabis-based medicines and hold stocks for future use by patients with prescriptions.

The announcement could benefit patients with conditions such as rare, serious forms of epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, described the changes to import restrictions as a "tremendous step" towards improving supply.

Health charities welcomed the move but said it did not address the issue of patients unable to access cannabis-based medicines on the NHS.

The new measures will be implemented by the Home Office and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) from 2nd March 2020.

Most cannabis-medicines are imported from abroad. Export restrictions mean it can take weeks or months for the drugs to reach patients in the UK.

Encouraging Further Research

A statement from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office said the Government was 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".

In addition, ministers said they would encourage UK trials to improve understanding of how medicinal cannabis could benefit patients. Trials were "necessary for wider prescribing by NHS clinicians in future", the statement said.

Mr Hancock said: "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."

The loosening of import restrictions follows a change in the law which allowed specialist doctors in the UK to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use from November 2018.

In November last year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommended two cannabis-based medicinal products for patients in England with MS and hard-to-treat epilepsy.

Although the move was welcomed by health charities, campaigners said too many people were still being excluded from treatment.

Limited NHS Access

Commenting on the latest Government announcement, Simon Wigglesworth, deputy chief executive of Epilepsy Action, said: "Efforts to improve access to cannabis-based medicines for those with a prescription are always welcome. However, these changes fail to address the fact that many people with epilepsy who could benefit from these treatments are simply unable to access them through the NHS.

"Alternative access routes, such as observational trials, need to be urgently established to allow those with the highest need to access cannabis-based medicines on the NHS. There are also on-going issues around funding for these treatments that need to be addressed to end the two-tier system and bring about real change for the families affected."

He added: "Epilepsy Action would like to see a dedicated central fund for cannabis-based medicines, similar to the existing Cancer Drugs Fund. This would go a long way towards addressing one of the well-known barriers to accessing these treatments."

The MS Society also welcomed the announcement but said it was unlikely to remove current barriers to access. Jonathan Blades, head of campaigns and external relations at the Society, said: "People with MS are failing to get prescriptions, even for recommended cannabis products like Sativex – so having a larger supply of medicine just out of reach is no help to them.

"We need the Government to set out a clear strategy on how it will ensure patients can access these important treatments so the thousands of us living with MS are not forced to choose between breaking the law or living in pain."

Dr Andy Yates, pharmacy lead at the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, an industry membership body, commented: "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."

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