Cannabis, medicinal use and the law

Date published: 04 June 2018

Background briefing – cannabis, medicinal use and the law

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  • Arrangements for the prescribing, supply and use of all medicines are quite properly subject to strict legislative controls to ensure safe and appropriate use.   
  • Before any new medicine can be used to treat people in the UK, it goes through a strictly monitored development process.  This involves researching the medicine in the lab and testing it in clinical trials. After passing the clinical trials, a license will be granted before it can be made available for wider use.
  • Clinicians and patients regularly request access to new medicines, often for the treatment of complex conditions. Access to all medicines must comply with the law and best clinical practice.
  • There has been recent media coverage in relation to patients seeking access to medicinal cannabis.  It is important to distinguish between different active ingredients in cannabis. Two of these are called THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). Products containing THC are subject to the highest level of control under UK medicines legislation.
  • Licensed cannabis-related medicines may be prescribed for defined medical conditions. It is unlawful to prescribe, possess, supply, produce, import or export any other cannabis product containing THC for medicinal purposes, except under a Controlled Drug (CD) licence.  
  • There is no evidence of a Health Service prescription for any unlicensed cannabis containing product ever being dispensed in Northern Ireland.
  • An application for a CD licence to use a THC-containing product for medicinal purposes would only be considered for use in bona fide research or a clinical trial, with appropriate clinical support.   No such applications have been received by the Department.  No licences have therefore been granted by the Department
  • A number of research and clinical trials are already underway internationally to test cannabis-based drugs for a range of conditions. For example, a study providing some evidence that CBD may help calm spasms during epileptic fits was published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine. CBD may therefore have some medicinal use but more evidence is needed to establish this to the required standard.
  • The World Health Organisation’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence is also carrying out a pre-review of both the harms and therapeutic value of all of constituent parts of cannabis. The Department of Health will consider the outcome of this work.
  • This whole matter is the subject of the Department’s careful attention and there is ongoing engagement with the Home Office. Officials are naturally keen to be sensitive and understanding towards parents campaigning on this issue. The Department must comply with the law and with best clinical practice.

* compiled by the Department of Health’s Medicines Regulatory Group

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