In late June, as more than a thousand people descended on the South Bank Center to attend the largest cannabis conference held so far in the UK, another development was taking place away from the headlines.
Drug Science, a non-profit research group founded to reform drug policies based on scientific evidence rather than politics or even economic considerations, launched an ambitious trial project in the UK.
The goal? To get medical cannabis to 20,000 British patients suffering from a range of conditions that the drug is well known to help treat.
Who Is Drug Science?
Founded by Professor David Nutt, the former chief drug advisor to the British government who was fired in 2009 for stating that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol, the group itself is clearly not afraid to tackle controversy. The Project TWENTY21 initiative is an ambitious if not desperately needed undertaking.
Targeted patient groups include those suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, MS, Tourette’s and addiction.
Several cannabis companies have already signed up to support the effort which also includes the United Patients Alliance ,and academic researchers.
According to Abby Hughes, Head of Outreach for UPA, “Whilst a change in UK law has given clinicians the green light to prescribe medical cannabis, the majority of patients are denied access, some even being criminalised, whilst corporations are profiting from the same plant.”
Hughes also noted that the goal of the project is to begin to ground patient demand in research and hard data. “We hope that by having a dataset that proves the efficacy of medical cannabis, thousands of patients will be able to access legal, affordable medicine, which may improve their quality of life,” she said.
What Is The Scope of Project TWENTY21?
It is the first-of-its-kind project in the UK where, 9 months after the law changed to allow prescription of cannabinoids as well as the medical importation of the same, there are less than 20 (legal) patients in the country. And all of the successful candidates so far have fought for the right and still do.
While important in its own right, the concept if not forward motion on the same, is also poised to create similar trials all over Europe. This is especially true in countries (like France) where the issue of reform has not moved at all. Or even in Germany (with well over 50,000 patients two and a half years after similar reform was passed by the Bundestag) where problems with access and questions about medical efficacy still frustrate the close to a million Germans who cannot access the drug. Switzerland and Luxembourg may yet prove to be similiarly interesting.
Why Is This Timely?
There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe as the cannabis industry has really begun to establish itself since mid-2016. This is the only way to help forward medical understanding of cannabinoids at a level that leads to mainstream acceptance. And more importantly, medical and payer mainstream approvals. Until that happens, despite all the press releases, overall sales across the continent remain low.
One of the most important issues beyond this – the extraordinarily high pricing seen in Europe until late last year – has also played a role of course. Payers (see the German “statutory” health insurers) on the front lines of uncertain medical efficacy are still reluctant to pay for a drug, in any form, they do not understand, do not have evidence for, and are still highly suspicious of.
There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe With cannabis companies agreeing to provide product (in this case potentially from Australia), a research organization with national chops and brave leaders is likely to take the conversation far. And not just in the UK.
While Drug Science is of course not the only British entity planning canna trials and in part supported by the Canadian industry (see The Beckley Foundation for starters), Project 2021 is also certainly likely to be a study with both local as well as regional and global implications.
In Europe, there are other regional trials now in the offing (see Switzerland, Germany and France). Only Germany of course, has a patient population that is starting to be large enough to be effectively studied, and of course, the majority of these patients are still receiving dronabinol.
It is also clearly a steady state march, rather than a discussion that is likely to see significant boosts in patient numbers any time soon. Unless of course, there are other contributing factors.
Regardless, unlike the U.S. and even Canada, the strict medical focus of Europe (including the UK) is finally moving the conversation to the next level. Large, regional and/or national medical trials – and further for conditions the drug is well-known to treat but are so far considered “off-label” for most Europeans will be the watchword here for the next several years.