Last year the law changed and now medical cannabis is being prescribed on the NHS. But what does it do, who can take it and is it safe?
It was the cases of two poorly children that touched the nation and helped to change the law. Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, both with severe epilepsy, inspired headlines — and a change of heart — after it emerged that each boy had been successfully treated with cannabis oil. Their families and doctors said the drug had drastically reduced the number of seizures each day. Up until recently, cannabis wasn’t thought to have any medicinal value, and it wasn’t even legal for medical use. But cases like Alfie’s and Billy’s brought fresh evidence to light and cannabis is now recognised as having medicinal benefits and can be prescribed in certain situations. Here’s everything you need to know…
What is medical cannabis?
Medical cannabis is a broad term for any sort of cannabis-based medicine
used to relieve symptoms. It’s available on prescription for a limited number of conditions…
Children and adults with severe epilepsy that has not responded to other anti-seizure medications.
Nausea and vomiting
Adults with severe nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy that has not responded to other anti-sickness medications.
A cannabis-based medication spray is available for people with muscle spasticity that hasn’t been helped by other treatments.
Medical cannabis is not yet available for the treatment of chronic pain, as more research is required.
Is medical cannabis safe?
GP Dr Philippa Kaye says: ‘Cannabis contains two major chemicals — THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which makes you high, and CBD (cannabidiol). Medical cannabis containing THC is only available on prescription and is likely to always be in tablet form, liquid or spray — not smoked.’
The main risk of THC cannabis products is psychosis. Regular cannabis use increases the risk of developing a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia.
There’s also a risk of dependency on the medicine — although scientists believe this risk is small when controlled by a specialist doctor.
Generally, the more THC the product contains, the greater the risk. Cannabis bought illegally off the street, where the quality, ingredients and strength are not known, is the most dangerous form to use.
What about CBD products?
Some products, such as CBD oils, are legal to buy from health stores, but there’s no guarantee these provide health benefits. Cannabis-based products, including CBD oils, can also be bought online, but may not be legal as they are likely to contain higher levels of THC than those from health stores. As their quality and content is not known, they may also be dangerous. Possessing cannabis, even for medical use, is illegal unless it has been prescribed for you. Always consult your doctor first.
‘Without cannabis, my girl could DIE’
From Robin Emerson of Bangor
When our daughter Jorja was born, we were overjoyed. But within months we noticed she wasn’t developing properly.
Doctors diagnosed her with a rare chromosome deletion syndrome.
‘She’ll have heart problems and severe developmental issues,’ they said.
Worse still, she would suffer from epilepsy and some of the seizures would be life- threatening.
After intense therapy, Jorja was able to roll over on her own. One day she even grabbed a toy, and soon she was smiling and giggling.
But she was having over 30 seizures a day and they were terrifying. Sometimes they would last for hours. One was so bad, she ended up in intensive care.
The doctors were worried that the seizures were causing Jorja’s brain to decay. But we knew that, somewhere inside, our little girl was still there.
Eventually, a new doctor told us: ‘Her brain isn’t decaying, but the cocktail of anti-epilepsy pills she’s taking is sedating her.’
I’d heard of medical cannabis helping children like Jorja and, while it wasn’t available in the UK at the time, parents who’d got it abroad said their kids’ seizures lessened and they were reaching developmental milestones.
I began fighting for medical cannabis to be available in the UK. Critics claimed it was dangerous and would damage a growing child’s brain. But it couldn’t be worse than the drugs Jorja was already taking.
Eventually a neurologist agreed to prescribe it privately and Jorja became the first child in Britain to receive medical cannabis.
We’re already seeing improvements. Without it, children like her will continue to suffer and may even die.