04 Jun While Medicinal Cannabis Flourishes Worldwide, NICE Seeks To Exclude The Only UK Option

Sativex with cannabis leaf

In October, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) will issue its new clinical guideline for the management of multiple sclerosis (MS). It proposes to recommend against the use of Sativex, the cannabis medicine produced by GW Pharmaceuticals. Sativex was licensed in 2010 as an treatment for spasticity in MS – that is muscle tightness causing pain and/or tremor.

This will be bad news for everyone in the UK who needs access to medicinal cannabis, for whatever condition. The fundamental reason for it is cost. NICE judges Sativex as simply too expensive for the benefit it provides.

Even before this negative report from NICE, it was already very difficult to get Sativex on an NHS prescription. The inevitable consequence of this NICE recommendation will be to drive patients back to the illicit cannabis market.

In a world where the benefits of medicinal cannabis are being more widely recognised every day this pushes the UK further back than ever. It’s a tragic irony that here is a British medicine developed by a British company and Britain is probably its most backward market. Similarly, GW’s latest product, Epidiolex, a high CBD cannabis oil for the treament of epilepsy is already in clinical trials in the US but Britain is lagging way behind.

GW Pharmaceuticals was the first ever business to be granted a licence by government, anywhere in the world, to grow cannabis for medicine. It arose out an inquiry by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee which recommended back in 1998 that doctors should be permitted to prescribe cannabis. A great deal of anecdotal evidence had been presented to the committee by MS patients. While the government rejected the idea of prescribing cannabis, a research licence was granted to Dr Geoffrey Guy. He set up GW Pharmaceuticals and Sativex is the result. GW’s product pipeline includes using cannabis to treat chronic pain, brain cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia and ulcerative colitis.

In the US, the FDA has fast tracked Sativex in its application for use as a treatment for cancer pain. It has granted Epidiolex orphan drug designation and the states of both Georgia and New York have signed formal agreements with GW to investigate Epidiolex specifically for paediatric epilepsy. Only in the last few days has come an announcement that the University of Edinburgh is trying to set up a UK clinical trial. It is absurd that Britain is so far behind and reveals yet again the deep ignorance, prejudice and cruelty of the medical establishment in the UK. Successive governments have used the GW licence as an excuse not to consider the medicinal cannabis issue any further. Now, while the rest of the world is embracing cannabinoid medicine, here it’s going backwards.

CLEAR estimates that about one million people in the UK are already using cannabis for medicinal purposes. Even though so few Care Commissioning Groups (CCG) will pay for Sativex for its licensed use, some enlightened doctors and CCGs have been prescribing it for chronic pain and neuropathic pain, conditions for which cannabis is particularly effective.

It is true that Sativex is fantastically expensive. See an analysis of its comparative cost here. I fully understand that the development costs for GW were enormous. The ridiculous over-regulation of a substance which is less harmful than coffee is unjustifiable by any standard. Sativex is the hand built, factory-tuned, Ferrari supercar of medicinal cannabis. Cheap, effective, economical, safe runabouts could be made widely available at a tenth of the price.

It is a corrupt, dishonest regulatory system in which both the Home Office and the MHRA are complicit that has created this situation. GW is a tremendous, international centre of excellence that has successfully brought cannabis to market. The losers are the British people. At least a million already and millions more that could benefit from the therapeutic benefits of cannabis are denied by cruelty, ignorance and prejudice.

We can blame the Daily Mail. We can blame the disgusting, cowardly political class. They certainly bear heavy responsibility. The people we should really be looking to are doctors. Apart from a very few, noble individuals, the UK medical profession has sadly failed its patients. Across Europe, the USA, Canada, Israel and increasingly in South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, doctors are putting their patients first, standing up to corrupt and dishonest governments and insisting that cannabis is a valauble and necessary medicine.

So it is to British doctors we should look now and to their professional bodies that have been shamefully slow in responding to patients’ needs. They need to stand up to the bullies in the Home Office and the cowards in the Department of Health. They need to start putting patients first and demanding that access is granted to medicinal cannabis for the millions of British people that need it.