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The UK Starts Prescribing Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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It is official. British doctors as of November 1, 2018, can now write prescriptions for medical cannabis. But what does that really mean? And is this truly a victory or merely an opening in the fierce resistance to and outright battle against cannabinoids as medicine?

A Real Victory Or Another Stall?

Many in the advocacy community in Europe are profoundly split. On one hand, yes, the British decision, like other sovereign medical cannabis reforms in Europe over the last two years, is a victory. The British government, like many before it, has thrown in the towel on denying basic access to medical cannabis. But what does this mean, especially in a country which may well be facing shortages of basic food products and other kinds of medications in under half a year if things continue to blow up on Brexit and there is no “people’s vote” to save the day?

Cultivated product would, normally, be slated to come from Portugal and Spain where Tilray and Canopy in particular have set up cultivation centers. If things continue to head to a negotiated Brexit, it is inevitable that imported cannabis would fall into the same category of everything else set to come into England by boat or lorry. It is highly unlikely that the NHS would authorize full payment for cannabis flown in from Canada. Especially with British Sugar’s existing cannabis plantations in Norfolk as well as the budding cultivation deals now finally flowering all over the country if not in Ireland.There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money.

Brexit Is The Bigger Worry, So What About Cannabis?

It may also seem to some that access to cannabis is the least of the country’s worries. Actually this is a discussion deeply embedded in the politics and drama in London and Brussels right now. It is also at the heart of Brexit itself. Namely the propaganda associated with European divorce that ran along the lines of “saving the NHS.”

In fact, the legalization of medical use in the UK, just as it is in countries across Europe (Germany being the best and most current ongoing example) will do much to shine a light on how creaky and outdated the medical provision system really is here. Especially when it comes to approving new drugs for large numbers of people quickly. This was, ultimately the goal of public healthcare. See penicillin, not to mention most inoculation drugs or vaccines for childhood diseases (like Polio).

One of the great ironies of cannabis legalization in Europe of course is that it is also often shining a light on how far this concept, not to mention funds for proper delivery, has been allowed to lapse. There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money. That is if it can finally make its way into widespread medical distribution.

UKflagAnd cannabis is a drug like no other. Why? Despite all the pharmacization of the plant that is going on right now as producers are being forced to produce pills and oils for the medical market, cannabinoid treatments will not be pushed so easily into “orphan” status – since whole plant products can treat a range of diseases. This is important in terms of supply and negotiated prices down the road. But in the short term, cannabis is falling into a couple of strange categories created by organized public healthcare, insurance mandates (both public and private), the demands being placed on producers in this space to act more like pharmaceutical companies, limited public spending budgets, and a changing demographic where chronic conditions treated by cannabis are a whole new ballgame. Namely patients are living longer, and not necessarily old.

So while it is all very well and good for British doctors to begin to write prescriptions for cannabis, merely having one does little good for most patients. In fact, this usually means the battle is only half won.

Why?

National Healthcare Is Still Functional In Europe

As foreign as it is to most Americans, most European countries operate more or less the same way when it comes to healthcare. First of all, all of the national systems in operation in Europe today, including the UK, were set up in the aftermath of WWII to recover from devastation most Americans, especially today, never experienced personally.

These healthcare systems were set up to first and foremost be inclusive. In other words, the default is that you are covered. 90% of populations across Europe in fact, including the UK, are covered by their national healthcare systems. “Private” health insurance actually only covers about 10% of the population and in some countries, like Germany, is mandatory once annual income rises above a certain level.

However this system is also based on a very old fashioned notion of not only medical care, but treatment of chronic conditions. Namely, that most people (the mostly well) face low prices for most drugs. Further, the people first in line to get “experimental” or “last use” drugs (as cannabis is currently categorized in Europe no matter its rescheduling in the UK), are patients in hospitals. With the exception of terminal patients, of course, that is no longer the case.

Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany.That is why, for example, so many disabled people began to sue the German government last year. They could not afford treatment until their insurer approved it. Monthly supplies in legal pharmacies are running around $3,000 per month for flower. Or about 8 times the total cash budget such people have to live on (in total) on a monthly basis.

In fact, because of this huge cost, approvals for drugs like cannabis do not actually happen at the front line of the insurance approving process, but are rather kicked back to regional (often state) approvals boards. As a result, approval for the right to take the drug with some or all of the cost covered by insurance, is actually limited to a much smaller pool of people right now – namely the terminally ill in hospital care. In Germany, the only people who are automatically approved for medical cannabis once a doctor writes the prescription, are the terminally ill. For everyone else it is a crapshoot. Between 35-40% of all applications in Germany are being turned down a year and a half into medical legalization. Some patients are being told they will have to wait until next year or even 2020.

And once that prescription is actually approved? Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany. Namely pharmacies do not readily stock the drug in any form.

In the meantime, patients are turning back to the black market. While the online pharmacy discussion is different in the UK than Germany, which might in fact make a huge difference for the right approvals system, most patients in the UK still face a long fight for easy and affordable access covered by public healthcare.


Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is now in negotiations for a pilot of her digital prescription and insurance pre-approvals and automization platform called MedPayRx in several European countries including the UK, Germany, and a few others.

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The UK Steps Up On Medical Cannabis Use

By Marguerite Arnold
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British Home Secretary Sajid Javid appears to have become the most high ranking cannabis advocate in the British government. He has just launched a review into medicinal uses of cannabis in the UK. However, this dramatic change in policy has only come after a series of high profile campaigns and escalating battles for access waged by patients and their families against a government which has remained stubbornly intransigent in the face of growing evidence of medical efficacy and reform elsewhere. In fact, the cannabis “Battle of Britain” has come to resemble the contretemps in Israel over the same issue four years ago that led to a national review of medical use and greater patient access.

GW Pharma said their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency

It is expected that this recent turn of events will open better access for more British medical users. The fact that the timing of all of this comes as GW Pharma has received the right to distribute Epidiolex in the U.S. as the first FDA-approved cannabis-based medicine is not only part of the irony but the underlying problematic politics surrounding all of this. Starting with the timing of who has access to what, and under what circumstances. As it stands, Epidiolex is also the only cannabis-based drug now eligible in the United States for healthcare coverage. The rest of the market is so-far excluded from it. Unlike, it should be pointed out the situation in the UK, the rest of the Commonwealth, and of course, the EU. Starting with Germany.

A Major Win for Patients

Celebrate one for Alfie! Alfie Dingley that is – the British 6 year old with epilepsy who has become one of the most well-known faces of medical justice for cannabis users in the UK. Dingley and his parents waged a battle since last fall over his right to consume low THC cannabis oil that allows him to manage his epilepsy. He has just been granted an emergency license to import the oil from the Netherlands.

But this is also a victory for Billy Caldwell, the twelve-year-old who ended up in emergency care in hospital recently after his medical oil (from Canada) was confiscated at the border. Video of border control agents at Heathrow Airport removing the oil from the Caldwells caused a national outcry in the UK. Caldwell’s mother, Charlotte, has also waged a high profile battle for access, including at the doors of the hospital her son was admitted to last week. She has also started her own CBD company named after her son.

Like the rest of Europe, which the UK still technically is part of until Brexit, the focus here has very much been on medical use.And of course, this new indication in change of policy is seen as a major victory if not step forward for literally thousands if not millions of Britains who suffer from chronic conditions that are still drug resistant (like Epilepsy but not limited to the same.)

As he addressed the House of Commons on the issue of medicinal cannabis use, Javid said “It has become clear to me since becoming home secretary that the position that we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory…I have now come to the conclusion that it is time to review the scheduling of cannabis.” As in the US, cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug in the UK – with supposedly no medical efficacy. This new development clearly challenges that scheduling – but where and how?

Recreational Is Still Not On The Table

Like the rest of Europe, which the UK still technically is part of until Brexit, the focus here has very much been on medical use. This is for several reasons, including a much better and more inclusive public health system – despite imminent fears about the longevity of the British National Health Service (NHS).

UKflagIn the UK, however, further reform is not likely to move fast. Unlike anywhere else, cannabis production is essentially limited to one company – GW Pharmaceuticals – who themselves have high standing political connections that continue to oppose reform. This is not based on science but rather profit. Despite the fact that the British Isles are the largest exporter of medical cannabinoid pharmaceuticals in the world, British patients are still largely excluded from access. The only reason that these children and their parents were able to pierce the wall of privilege and profit that has driven the debate here since the late 90’s is that GW Pharmaceutical’s cannabinoid concoctions do not work on this kind of epilepsy. Plus the failure of a recent trial of their new drug (shamefully in Europe, not even conducted in the UK).

As a result, GW Pharmaceuticals and the well placed scions of British society who have profited directly and personally from this situation have little choice but to back down – but not by much. As soon as Javid announced his intention to do a review of British policy, former Tory (conservative) leader Lord William Hague called for full legalization. An initiative that as of June 19 was rejected by the government.

Is Medical Finally About To Get Its Due?

In Europe, politically, the frustration is clearly growing. And much like in the United States circa 2012, activists and advocates realize that medical access is the first step towards full reform. However here there is a marked difference to what is going on in both the U.S. and Canada. And in turn, this may bring a long overdue focus on the medical issue that has continually been obscured and overlooked by the industry itself as soon as recreational seems it is in reach.

When real and regulated medical markets are allowed to flourish, the first beneficiaries are both children and women, not middle-aged men. That is clearly the face of the “average” German patient now that the data of the first year has come in. It is also likely to be the case of the British patient as well as Europeans across the continent.In Europe, politically, the frustration is clearly growing

Further, as cannabis has become more of an accepted treatment, this is in turn forcing governments (and even the industry itself) to begin, for the first time, to consider funding widespread trials – and of the raw plant itself along with extracts and other forms the drug can be consumed in.

What does this really herald, in fact then besides relief for chronically ill patients? The first widespread scientific inquiry into the efficacy of cannabinoids outside of Israel.

And that too, is cause for celebration. Congrats Alfie and Billie! And all the people who helped move the issue forward.