Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferers should have access to legally regulated medical cannabis, according to a major MS charity. They claim that one in ten sufferers of the condition could use it to ease their pain and spasticity as a last resort when other medication does not work. However, cannabis is currently a schedule one drug, meaning that pharmacists are not able to supply or stock it and patients must look to the black market.

The charity is also calling for Sativex, a cannabis-based drug used by some people with MS, to be available on prescription throughout the UK. Currently, despite being a licensed medicine, it can only be obtained privately at the cost of around £2,000 per year, except in Wales. This drives many to obtain cannabis through other means, such as buying the plant on the black market. According to a 2014 survey by the MS Society, around one in five people with MS have taken cannabis to ease their symptoms.

However, many are dissuaded from using cannabis because its illegality means that they have to source it from criminals and you cannot be sure what you are taking. Street cannabis varies in its potency and is often consumed by smoking a joint, which is not the most healthy way to consume medicine. The 2014 MS Society’s survey mentioned above found that, whilst one in five had previously taken cannabis to ease their symptoms, only 7% were still doing so. A quarter (26%) of those who had stopped taking it said they had done so out of fear of prosecution and 26% of all respondents had considered trying cannabis but had not done so for the same reason – and also because they were concerned about the drug’s safety.

Unrolled joint (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Experts from the MS Society have told ministers that the 100,000 MS sufferers in the UK should be able to use cannabis in order to relieve their “relentless and exhausting” symptoms, without fear of prosecution, of which they estimate 10 percent could directly benefit from its use. They say that the evidence on cannabis’ effectiveness, whilst not conclusive, is strong enough that the government should consider changing the law. The charity has changed its position after reviewing the evidence, consulting medical advisers and seeking the views of 3,994 people who have the condition.

Genevieve Edwards, the MS Society’s Director of External Affairs said:

“We think cannabis should be legalised for medicinal use for people with MS to relieve their pain and muscle spasms when other treatments haven’t worked. The level of clinical evidence to support cannabis’s use for medicinal purposes is not conclusive. But there is sufficient evidence for our medical advisors to say that on the balance of probability, cannabis could benefit many people with MS experiencing pain and muscle spasms.

“It’s simply not right that some people are being driven to break the law to relieve their pain and spasticity. It’s also really risky when you’re not sure about the quality or dosage of what you’re buying.”

The MS society has support on this from doctors who treat MS patients, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party. Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson said:

“This is the strongest proof yet that the existing law on cannabis is a huge injustice that makes criminals of people whose only crime is to be in acute pain. This draconian law is potentially opening anything up to 10,000 MS suffers to prosecution, and underlines why the Liberal Democrats have braved a tabloid backlash to campaign for the legalisation of cannabis. It is about time the government listened to the science.”

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which advises the government on which treatments it should provide, has told the NHS that Sativex is not a cost-effective treatment. The Home Office said: “This government has no plans to legalise cannabis. Cannabis is controlled as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and, in its raw form, currently has no recognised medicinal benefits in the UK.”

Such a major charity coming out in support of medical cannabis is a huge step, as these bodies are inherently cautious and often reluctant to take such a bold stance on an illegal substance. They have backed this change in law after listening to MS sufferers and carrying out an in-depth analysis of the evidence.

The MS Society now joins the ranks of organisations such as the United Patients Alliance (UPA), who have a number of members with MS and have campaigned for legal medical cannabis since 2014. Jon Liebling, Political Director of the UPA, said:

“United Patients Alliance supporters and patients are delighted that the MS Society have stepped forward to support legal access to cannabis therapeutics. All our MS patients find that cannabis helps them with their symptoms with less unwanted side-effects then their regular prescription medications. We have been working with the MSSociety on this initiative and look forward to working more closely with them in the future and hope that this brave step forward encourages other health charities to come out in support of a change in the law for patients who so urgently need it.”

Words by Abbie Llewelyn. Tweets @Abbiemunch

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