“It’s putting patients into vulnerable situations through no fault of their own.”
I became a medical cannabis patient for my attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) during lockdown. During the pandemic, I was separated from my family in Ireland and unable to travel. So, I hadn’t realised how difficult this would be until restrictions lifted. Ireland and the UK share a common travel corridor designed to make life easier but it stops short of helping medical cannabis patients.
I have a choice to make: I risk arrest or having my medication confiscated if I travel with it. I could go without which means my symptoms return or I source through the illicit market.
The issue is not just about traveling abroad, as many patients have experienced the anxiety and confusion of travelling across the UK with their medical cannabis.
As a new patient, when I chose to travel down south, I hadn’t a clue what to do. I was anxious about what would happen if I was caught so I took a small amount of my cannabis and popped it into an unmarked tin. I didn’t realise we have to keep the medication in the prescription tub until months later.
Medical cannabis patient Alex* has encountered issues while travelling to the Isle of Scilly off Cornwall.
“I knew they had sniffer dogs that try to prevent drugs from getting on the island. I attempted to make contact with the police there first but they wouldn’t accept that prescriptions existed. She kept asking if it was Cancard to which I said no – it’s a prescription,” he said.
“She wanted photos of the container and the product. She asked how she would differentiate between illegal and legal cannabis to which I was trying to explain that you can’t. She wanted to know what was to stop someone putting illegal products into one of the medical containers.”
The phone call saw Alex’s query bounced from police station to drug experts from Cornwall to Brighton and Manchester before reaching the Metropolitan police who contacted the Home Office. It took a total of three weeks before Alex was given an answer to say he could travel with it.
He said: “I agreed to give her my prescription details not every police force in the UK. She looked into the background of my doctor to see where and when he qualified. They checked to see if it was all correct and he could prescribe.”
“I am a confident speaker who can stand up for myself but there are patients who can’t or don’t have the energy to have these conversations. The last thing you want as a patient is to feel you are being harassed by the police. The police should know the law but they aren’t being kept up to date with it,” he added.
“It’s putting patients into vulnerable situations through no fault of their own. Patients have to deal with the consequences of not having their medication or trying to find more finances to get more product.”
Patients are struggling with contradictory advice especially as European countries are changing their laws regarding cannabis.
“It’s hard to understand where your prescription is valid. If you are travelling to Italy, do they accept your medical conditions? What documentation do they require? The issue with travelling around the UK is that you don’t have proof you have a prescription besides the packaging. It’s not clear for patients and in some cases we require a letter from prescribers – so why isn’t this being provided?”
Medical cannabis patient, Lex has been stopped with their medication while travelling within the UK. They highlight that it can be an anxiety-inducing experience for patients.
“I’ve been stopped multiple times on public transport in the UK, especially on trains. I was recently stopped where I was approached by a security guard and two police officers because they smelled cannabis.”
They added: “I travel with as little product as possible as I’m usually only going away for a few days. This is normally a maximum of 5 grammes and a bottle of oil. They don’t care about the oil but I’ve had flower confiscated before. I had to have conversations about it being a legal prescription but sometimes if you are travelling, you don’t have the time to put in the effort of explaining its medication.”
Medication being confiscated can lead to patients being forced to turn to the illicit market to cover them while they are away and replacing it can be costly. This has led to some deciding to not travel to avoid this.
Lex said: “I used to travel abroad constantly. I have family in all parts of the world but since getting a prescription, I have stopped travelling outside of the UK and will only travel within the country if I have to.”
“I’m trying to book a holiday to Spain at the moment because of the cannabis clubs so that way I don’t have to worry about taking my prescription.”
There are some initiatives designed to make travel easier for patients and work with the police such as Cancard. Although patients have expressed that they would like to see better education of police forces or airlines to start with.
“Better education of our police force is a great start, then I think airlines need to be made aware that it’s legal. We need information for patients about how to talk to embassies of places they want to visit too,” Lex concluded.
The laws are changing but for some patients, not quickly enough. Margret is a patient based in the UK but from New York. She has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome which can cause chronic pain, anxiety and gastroparesis. If she needs to travel home with medication then it can’t be higher than 0.3% THC or it must be an FDA-approved product like Sativex.
“It would be extremely difficult so I would bring over the counter CBD then try to source medication when I get there. I can’t travel over state lines with it even if I could bring it with me, I can’t travel to different places to see family members.”
She added: “I’ve tried to reduce the amount I take or THC that I need but I need at least 5 milligrammes a day or the gastroparesis comes back. It’s hard to travel because I don’t want to be sick. As it’s just been legalised, I wouldn’t know how to find it because there are no dispensaries yet.”
*Name changed to maintain patient anonymity.
Caroline DeBarra is an Irish journalist based in Nottingham, England. They are also a medical cannabis patient who writes extensively on how it can help neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD, tech and also LGBT+ interest. Tweets @CarolineDebarra