Those attempting to track the meandering Brexit trail in the three years since the referendum which decided that the United Kingdom (UK) would leave the European Union (EU) are well aware that the general election on 12 December most likely will determine the path forward. What that might mean for the cannabis market in the UK is less discussed.
Election front-runners, the Conservatives and Labour Parties, which recent polls projected to have 41 and 29 percent of the votes respectively, both have been reticent to support the use of cannabis-based products. The Liberal Democrats, with less than 15 percent of the projected votes, and the Greens with even less, both support liberalization. As recently as this summer, however, a cross-party group of Members of the UK Parliament returned from a study visit in Canada prepared to vote against party lines. As the UK potentially moves toward under a revitalized Conservative government to seal a deal with the EU before 31 January 2020 predicate to embarking on a process of resetting its rules as an independent nation, there is plenty of opportunity for change. The UK re-branding undoubtedly will seek to build on its reputation for excellence in research and development in the life sciences sector, including its extensive expertise in clinical studies of potential new treatments. The future may well include a significant increase in clinical research on cannabis products.
On 11 November 2019, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidance that clears the way for two cannabis-based medicines to be used within the UK’s National Health System (NHS). NICE reversed the position it took in draft guidance in August when it questioned the efficacy GW Pharma’s Epidiolex despite the European Medicines Agency approving it in September for the entire EU market. NICE also overcame its hesitancy concerning the pricing of Epidiolex as well as Sativex, another GW Pharma product, approved for medicinal use in the UK in 2010 but which NICE had rejected earlier this year as not cost-effective. Subsequent work between NICE and GW Pharma on economic modelling as well as public consultations paved the way for the change in position.
Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in November 2018 under certain conditions. NICE’s guidance enables, for the first time, NHS specialists to prescribe cannabis-based products for patients across England. Epidiolex, a purified cannabidiol (CBD) solution, is used to treat seizures in children with Lennos Gastaut or Dravat syndromes while Sativex, which contains equal portions CBD and tetrahydocannabinol (THC), treats spasticity related to multiple sclerosis. Sativex will be available only when other treatments have failed and where local NHS authorities agree to cover costs for a four week period. Continuation of the treatment by prescription from a general practitioner is possible where symptoms improve by at least twenty percent during the trial period.
NICE’s recommendation on Sativex was welcomed by the MS (multiple sclerosis) Trust. Similarly, Epilepsy Action considers the recommendation on Epidiolex to be an important step forward but calls for more research on the use of medicines containing THC for epilepsy patients. The patient advocacy group End our Pain, which last spring brought families of patients with epilepsy to the offices of more than 80 Members of the UK Parliament, has criticized the NICE guidance for not also recommending medicines with THC for NHS use in treating symptoms of epilepsy.
Whomever ends up in office to guide the UK through the coming rocky steps can expect to hear plenty more from constituents about the potential benefits of cannabis-based products and the need for regulatory reform.