Breaking Down Barriers to Medical Cannabis in the UK

Breaking Down Barriers to Medical Cannabis in the UK

Challenges Persist for UK Medical Cannabis Patients Despite Legalization Efforts.

UK medical cannabis patients are facing multiple challenges that are preventing the adoption of the legal market. From stigmatisation and supply bottlenecks to inconsistent medicine quality and high consultation costs, these issues are keeping patients underground, highlighting an urgent need for solutions.

Cannabis has been legal in the UK since 2018, but strict guidelines mean that only a handful of patients receive NHS prescriptions.

Data shows that around 1.8 million people in the UK are reportedly self-medicating with cannabis, but only a fraction of those have joined this legal market, with an estimated 30,000 to 32,000 patients receiving private prescriptions.

In fact, as much as £3.57 billion was spent on underground cannabis in 2023, despite the legal status of medical cannabis.

Patients have cited several barriers to transitioning, including lack of affordability due to the added costs of consultations, supply problems, and medicine quality issues, including reports of mouldy flowers, which is a significant health hazard for patients and a serious problem for the legitimacy of the legal market.

Clark French, Founder of the United Patient’s Alliance and medical cannabis patient, commented: “Patients face a dilemma, with prescription costs and lack of quality control many patients choose to stick with what they know. I hope that more will join the growing number of legal patients.”

Encouragingly, efforts are underway to address these issues. Portugal-based Somai Pharmaceuticals is one example, which is taking a multi-pronged approach to provide standardised cannabis medicines to patients in the UK, improve access and help tackle supply bottlenecks.

Based out of Lisbon, Portugal, Somai’ state-of-the-art extract facility is fitted with industrial air filtration systems, air pressure rooms, high tech extraction equipment, and follows stringent hygiene protocols to ensure standarised medicines.

Further, with the facility’s ability to produce large volumes of medicine and with further room for expansion, Somai is looking to the future to prevent supply problems that patients are facing.

To broaden the UK medical cannabis landscape, the company is embarking on a number of initiatives, such as launching one new product a month into the market over 2024 to bring a wider variety of options for patients, including different strains and products like rosins and edibles.

Michael Sassano, CEO of Somai Pharmaceutical, commented: “We are walking on the line of education because it wouldn’t make sense to launch them all at once. Nobody would be able to absorb them. We don’t want people to just try one and not try the other. We want people to join us in that journey and find for themselves what they want.”

Somai is also working with UK cannabis company Grow Pharma to help improve patient access through a distribution partnership, as well as bringing world-renowned products to the market through a partnership with Cookies, which will see Somai launch a Cookie’s flower extract line.

Rooting itself into the legacy cannabis market through the development of household name strains such as Girl Scout Cookies, Runtz, Sherbert and Gelato, Cookies has become more than a cannabis company – it is a cornerstone of modern cannabis culture, and a name synonymous with good cannabis genetics.

“It’s about equipment and processing techniques to get it to that right level of product,” said Sassano.

“So if somebody has a more recognised recreational name and it appeals to people, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have the highest quality product. We’re taking it a step further and saying, you can have that product, that terpene profile, with the highest medical quality.”

Adding this recognised name to the UK’s medical market and increasing the variety of high quality products available may go some way to encouraging legacy users to transition into the legal market, however, stigma around medical cannabis still remains a major barrier.

Data shows that 84% of patients report experiencing stigma over cannabis medicine, and just over 40% report being afraid of what the police, criminal justice system, government agencies, or healthcare professionals might think about their medical cannabis treatment.

These fears may be founded in reality, as recent data highlighted that 28.5% of UK police officers are still unaware that cannabis was made a legal medicine in 2018, and patients are still being criminalised for their prescriptions.

This is unacceptable treatment of patients using a legal medicine to improve their quality of life and needs to be addressed urgently.

It is not just police officers who are unaware of the law change – one survey revealed that 31% of people did not know that medical cannabis had been made legal in 2018, underscoring the need for further awareness amongst the public.

French, who visited Somai’s facility, commented: “I am excited to see more brands entering the market, especially ones that take the quality of the medicine very seriously. However, exciting as that is, it pales in comparison to the larger issue of the stigma around cannabis in the UK which is preventing many from knowing that they can legally access cannabis.

“Until the NHS prescribes cannabis, the vast majority of patients in the UK will miss out and face being criminalised.

“As it stands, patients with a prescription have opened up a new front on the war on drugs, yet we are still on the front line, bearing the brunt of the workload, and we desperately need more support from the industry. Not just access, but help raising awareness.

“Patient-centred medicine is vital and I was pleased to see Somai invite patients to see the facility. This gives me hope that the industry is realising that the more it supports patients and patient advocacy, the better off it will be in the long run.”

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Region: United Kingdom

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