Hundreds of prescriptions were given by GPs for medical cannabis in Birmingham and Solihull over the past five years, new figures show.
The findings come as charities urge for greater access to medical cannabis for those suffering from neurological and autoimmune conditions. Medicines made from cannabis plants or synthetic cannabis can be used to treat a range of conditions – such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and chronic pain.
However, they are expensive to procure, and some medical professionals disagree on how effective they are. The most widely-prescribed drug made from cannabis is a combination of dronabil and cannabinol, which is used to treat MS, and is commonly referred to by its brand name Sativex.
Figures from the NHS OpenPrescribing service shows these drugs were prescribed 37 times by GPs in 2022 – down from 41 times in 2021. This represents 9,540 doses of the drug – fewer than 11,070 the year before.
Over the past five years, 221 prescriptions have been given out by GPs for these medications in the former NHS Birmingham And Solihull CCG area. These drugs are only used to treat certain types of MS and contain the active ingredients Tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol found in cannabis plants.
While rarely prescribed, CBD is widely available on UK high streets – albeit in varying strength and quality. Meanwhile, substances containing THC remain illegal outside of specific medical uses.
This data shows the number of prescriptions given by GPs, rather than patients – a single patient may have been prescribed a drug multiple times over the same year. Prescription medication can also be dispensed directly by hospitals – with previous research by the MS Society charity suggesting more than half of prescribing of Sativex is through secondary care.
Across England, 2,953 prescriptions were provided by GPs for Sativex and similar drugs in 2022 – up 56% from 1,893 the year before. The MS Society has been campaigning to make Sativex more widely available, and said despite increased availability, some health bodies will not currently fund the drug. It says the medication can have "life-changing effects" for those suffering from the condition, helping to alleviate stiffness and muscle spasms.
Across the country there were just 23 GP prescriptions for cannabidiol (CBD) based medications in 2022, which are generally used for treatment-resistant epilepsy – none of which were in Birmingham and Solihull.
The NHS is hesitant to widely prescribe these medicines due to limited evidence on their effectiveness and high costs. However, the charity Epilepsy Action said access to medicinal cannabis can make a "massive difference" in reducing seizures when other treatments are not working.
Daniel Jennings, senior policy and campaigns officer at the charity, said: "While it may not be effective for some people with epilepsy, the impact on quality of life in successful cases is huge."
He said that while these medications remain difficult to get hold of through the NHS, people with epilepsy face large bills for buying them from private providers – with almost 90,000 private prescriptions made between 2018 and 2022.
Nabilone – a drug which contains synthetic cannabinoids and is used to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy – was prescribed 371 times by GPs across England last year. Of these, 16 were for patients in Birmingham and Solihull, with 68 prescriptions given over five years.