Ten thousand people with multiple sclerosis in the UK should be allowed to use cannabis legally in order to relieve their “relentless and exhausting” symptoms, experts in the disease have told ministers.
The MS Society claims the one in 10 sufferers of the condition whose pain and spasticity cannot be treated by medication available on the NHS should be able to take the drug without fear of prosecution.
The evidence on cannabis’s effectiveness, while not conclusive, is now strong enough that the government should relax the ban on the drug for MS patients who have no other treatment options, the society says in a report.
Doctors who treat MS patients have backed the society’s call, as have the Liberal Democrats and the Green party. Legalisation would ease “the extremely difficult situation in which many people with MS find themselves”, the charity said.
The society is calling for the first time for the 10,000 patients – one in 10 of the 100,000 people in Britain with MS – to be able to access cannabis without fear of arrest. It has changed its position after reviewing the evidence, consulting its medical advisers and seeking the views of 3,994 people who have the condition.
“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,” said Genevieve Edwards, the MS Society’s director of external affairs.
“The level of clinical evidence to support cannabis’s use for medicinal purposes is not conclusive. But there is sufficient evidence for our medical advisers to say that on the balance of probability, cannabis could benefit many people with MS experiencing pain and muscle spasms.”
The charity is also urging NHS bosses to make Sativex, a cannabis-based drug used by some people with MS, available on prescription across the UK so that patients who can afford it no longer have to acquire it privately, at a cost of about £2,000 a year. Wales is the only home nation to provide the mouth spray through the NHS.
Patients’ inability to access Sativex on the NHS in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland “has resulted in many people with MS turning to illegal forms of cannabis as an alternative. 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,” Edwards said.
Norman Lamb, the Lib Dem health spokesman, 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 sufferers 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.”
One in five (22%) MS patients who took part in a survey by the society said they had used cannabis to help manage their symptoms, but 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. Another 26% of 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.
Doctors are divided over cannabis’s potential role in treating MS. Some are supportive while others are anxious about endorsing the use of a drug that can cause psychiatric problems. The Royal College of GPs said it was currently drawing up policy on the issue and could not comment. The Royal College of Physicians, which represents hospital doctors, said it had no policy on the issue.
Dr Willy Notcutt, a pain management specialist at the James Paget hospital in Norfolk, who has been treating MS patients for more than 20 years, said: “Every week I come across patients wishing to use cannabis to control their symptoms but who are unable to get proven drugs like Sativex from the NHS. Many patients seek illegal cannabis to get help. They can’t be sure of its origin but are being forced to commit a criminal act in order to obtain relief.”
Dr Waqar Rashid, a consultant neurologist at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS trust, said: “[Cannabis is] not a cure-all, and there are other treatments that should be tried first. But it makes sense for criminality not be a barrier to a treatment which could reduce the debilitating impact of symptoms and transform someone’s quality of life.”