Scotland cannot fall behind on cannabis-based medicines – Steve Cardownie

Billy Caldwell, who has benefited from treatment with cannabis oil, with his mother Charlotte. Picture: PABilly Caldwell, who has benefited from treatment with cannabis oil, with his mother Charlotte. Picture: PA
Billy Caldwell, who has benefited from treatment with cannabis oil, with his mother Charlotte. Picture: PA
Parents’ accounts of how children who suffer severe epileptic seizures benefit from cannabis oil treatment must be taken seriously, writes Steve Cardownie.

Back in April last year I reported in my ­column under the heading “Cannabis-based drugs may soon be on NHS” that it would surely only be a matter of time before cannabidiol (CBD) would be made available. Now the recent announcement that the NHS in ­England has approved two cannabis-based medicines for use in the treatment of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis has brought it a step closer.

New guidelines have been issued from Nice, the drugs advisory body, which has led to doctors being allowed to prescribe Epidyolex for children with two types of severe epilepsy which can cause multiple seizures a day. Clinical trials have demonstrated that an oral solution containing CBD (which does not contain THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis) could reduce the number of seizures by up to 40 per cent in some children.

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NHS doctors can now prescribe cannabis-based medicines - this is what you need t...

The other treatment, Sativex, a mouth spray that contains a mix of THC and CBD, has been approved for treating muscle stiffness and spasms experienced by people with multiple sclerosis. It has been available on the NHS in Wales since 2014 – but at a cost of £2,000 per year for the treatment it was deemed “not cost effective” by regulators in England, although this new announcement reverses that decision. Hopefully the NHS in Scotland will follow suit next year, but does this welcome move go far enough?

Parents become smugglers

Doctors will be prohibited from prescribing the drug to alleviate pain which is a common symptom of MS. This has caused the MS Society to criticise the guidelines as not going far enough, with campaigners pledging to continue their fight to get the approval extended to cover other symptoms.

Parents and guardians of children who have epilepsy have spoken about marked reductions in the number and severity of seizures suffered by their children when given medicines imported from the Continent and Canada which contain both CBD and, crucially, THC.

Paying up to thousands of pounds a month for these medicines, they are angry that the drugs approved for the treatment of epilepsy only contain CBD, not both components which they say their children need. It is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and they want their demands met.

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One oil that has so far been effective in reducing seizures for some children contains nine per cent CBD and less than one per cent THC but it is produced in the Netherlands. It is illegal to bring it into the UK without the appropriate import licence, leading some parents to bring the oil in illegally.

Reforms gathering pace

Billy Caldwell, a boy from Northern Ireland who suffered up to 100 seizures a day, has had none in almost a year after being treated with cannabis oil which, according to his mother, has also improved his autism, with better eye contact and interaction with toys and books. Perhaps tellingly, he also takes a supplement containing THC which, as I explained above, has not been sanctioned for the treatment of epilepsy.

So reforms appear to be gathering pace, but not as quickly as some would like. The testimony from parents that some children suffering epileptic seizures do benefit from cannabis oil treatment has been recognised by health practitioners throughout the UK (although it is fair to say that some do have reservations as to its effectiveness and long-term potential consequences) and action, however slowly, has been taken.

The NHS in Scotland cannot fail to have taken the new developments in the health sector into account and is likely to soon follow suit. But why not go further and replicate the policies adopted by some countries beyond these shores and issue guidelines that would allow cannabis oil which contains both CBD and THC to be prescribed on the NHS?

This might go a long way in alleviating the suffering of children and the anguish of parents who have to witness their child having multiple seizures on a daily basis.

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