MS patients are being 'denied' cannabis medicine approved by the NHS.

Liz Filmer
26 Aug 2021

Multiple Sclerosis is a condition affecting the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide array of symptoms. It is also the only medical condition that has a UK licensed cannabis-based treatment. According to a recent  MS Society report, thousands of UK patients are denied access to this drug. NHS funding variances across England have created a "postcode lottery" regarding whether sufferers can obtain a prescription.

Sativex is a mouth spray containing CBD and THC that can ease chronic MS symptoms, including stiffness and involuntary muscle contractions. In November 2019, Official health adviser Nice (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommended Sativex for patients suffering from moderate to severe spasticity, muscle tightness and for whom other treatments have been unsuccessful.

The report uncovered that less than half of local NHS clinical commissioning groups (49 out of 106) had listed the drug as one they are willing to fund. There are currently 130,000 people living with MS in the UK, and at some point, as many as 80% of them will experience muscle spasms. Sativex will not work for everyone, but when it does work, it can be life-changing.

Suppose a patient meets the criteria for Sativex. In that case, they are put on a four-week trial, and if symptoms improve by 20%, they stay on the medication.

Around 4,800 UK patients currently qualify for a Sativex trial, with as many as three-quarters expected to benefit. However, MS Society analysis of NHS prescriptions data suggested that in May, only 630 people were getting the drug.

Specialists in the condition agree that Sativex is a tried and tested, proven treatment that is very helpful in managing MS symptoms; the problem is that patients cannot access it!

The problems with access have come about through a mixture of funding limitations and stigma that Sativex is a cannabis-based medicine. The UK Government relaxed the laws in 2018, allowing cannabis and cannabis-based medicinal products to be prescribed by specially trained doctors. Getting hold of a prescription, however, is still very difficult. Many GPS are reluctant to refer patients due to stigma and a lack of education on the subject.

It is also believed that the fact that Sativex was approved by NICE only months before the pandemic kicked in has further hindered its uptake.

Some desperate patients desperate for treatment are paying in the region of  £500 per month for a private prescription to control the excruciating pain of muscle spasms. This is a prescription that would cost the NHS less than £300. Some who cannot afford to pay for a private prescription are substituting Sativex with medicinal cannabis, which they have to obtain illegally. 

The MS Society asks the clinical commissioning groups across England to make changes, end the "postcode lottery" of care and provide Sativex to everyone who meets the NHS criteria.

"MS can be relentless, painful and disabling, and getting the treatment you need shouldn't be a game of chance. Sativex doesn't work for everyone with MS, but the impact can be life-changing when it does work".- Fredi Cavender-Attwood, policy manager at the MS Society

Liz Filmer