Published: 05/12/2019

Poll reveals one in three UK doctors believe medical cannabis should be prioritised as an alternative to opioid-based medicines

The public debate about opioid prescription and usage is intensifying in the UK as concern is rising amongst the public, patients and medical professionals that the UK could be moving towards an opioid crisis similar to that in America.

The public are becoming more aware of the potential adverse consequences of opioid use which could include dependence, overuse and withdrawal. Public Health England recently revealed that 5.6 million people were prescribed opioid pain medicines in 2017/2019. And over half a million of these patients had been on opioid pain medicines for at least 3 years.

Sir Patrick Stewart, a medical cannabis patient himself said ‘‘I’ve had access to medical cannabis in the USA for many months and it has been of great benefit. It’s hugely concerning to me that access to it is still so difficult in the UK despite its legalisation a year ago. It seems perverse that opioid prescriptions are still at such high levels when medical cannabis could be a much safer and more cost-effective alternative’.

So, when the law changed in the UK last year patients suffering with conditions like chronic pain at last felt hopeful that there was an alternative to strong and potent opioids. But, since the law change of last year, which made medical cannabis available under prescription in the UK, the number of prescriptions for chronic pain has been in extremely low figures. In the media the narrative that is commonly portrayed is that medical professionals are sceptical of the efficacy of medical cannabis and therefore unwilling to prescribe, on the NHS or privately.

But at Sapphire, as part of our commitment to our mission statement: ‘By Doctors: For Doctors’ we wanted to understand directly from GPs whether they did wish to see medical cannabis prioritised over opioids in the UK. The results were staggering. Of the 1009 GPs around the UK polled by Comres, of those who expressed an opinion, 37% agreed that medical cannabis should be prioritised over opioids.

So, what does this tell us?

It tells us that even though medical cannabis is in its infancy in the UK there is a significant demand from GPs to explore it. It demonstrates an urgent need for medical education about medical cannabis. Because it was illegal in the UK for around 50 years it hasn’t been part of any formal medical training for generations, whereas the prescribing of opioids is entrenched within the British prescribing system. Whilst we cannot deny that opioids do have their placed in modern medicine there are very significant concerns around inappropriate use and addiction.

What does it mean for patients?

Whilst medical cannabis is not a cure all or magic bullet, it is welcome to see that GPs in the UK are beginning to accept that it has its place in the treatment pathway. Patients suffering from conditions that could secure relief from medical cannabis should feel confident in approaching their GP and discussing referrals to clinics where specialists are able to prescribe medical cannabis, where deemed clinically appropriate.

Read our coverage in the Sunday Express here.


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