Medical cannabis (and cannabis oils)
“Medical cannabis” is a broad term for any sort of cannabis-based medicine used to relieve symptoms.
Many cannabis-based products are available to buy online, but their quality and content is not known. They may be illegal and potentially dangerous.
Some products that might claim to be medical cannabis, such as “CBD oil” or hemp oil, are available to buy legally as food supplements from health stores. But there’s no guarantee these are of good quality or provide any health benefits.
And some cannabis-based products are available on prescription as medicinal cannabis. These are only likely to benefit a very small number of patients.
Can I get a prescription for medical cannabis?
Very few people in England are likely to get a prescription for medical cannabis.
Currently, it is only likely to be prescribed for the following conditions:
- children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy
- adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy
- people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS)
It would only be considered when other treatments were not suitable or had not helped.
Epidyolex for children and adults with epilepsy
Epidyolex is a highly purified liquid containing CBD (cannabidiol).
CBD is a chemical substance found in cannabis that has medical benefits.
It will not get you high, because it does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical in cannabis that makes you high.
Epidyolex can be prescribed for patients with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome (both rare forms of epilepsy).
Nabilone for chemotherapy patients
Many people having chemotherapy will have periods where they feel sick or vomit.
Nabilone can be prescribed by a specialist to help relieve these symptoms, but only when other treatments have not helped or are not suitable.
Nabilone is a medicine, taken as a capsule, that has been developed to act in a similar way to THC (the chemical in cannabis that makes you high). You may have heard it described as a “manmade form of cannabis”.
Nabiximols (Sativex) for MS
Nabiximols (Sativex) is a cannabis-based medicine that is sprayed into the mouth.
It is licensed in the UK for people with MS-related muscle spasticity that has not got better with other treatments.
There is some evidence medical cannabis can help certain types of pain, though this evidence is not yet strong enough to recommend it for pain relief.
What about products available to buy?
Some cannabis-based products are available to buy over the internet without a prescription.
It’s likely most of these products – even those called “CBD oils” – will be illegal to possess or supply. There’s a good chance they will contain THC, and may not be safe to use.
Health stores sell certain types of “pure CBD”. However, there’s no guarantee these products will be of good quality.
They tend to only contain very small amounts of CBD, so it’s not clear what effect they would have.
Is medical cannabis safe?
The risks of using cannabis products containing THC (the chemical that gets you high) are not currently clear. That’s why clinical trials are needed before they can be used.
“Pure” products that only contain CBD, such as Epidyolex, do not carry these unknown risks linked with THC.
But in reality, most products will contain a certain amount of THC.
The main risks of THC cannabis products are:
- psychosis – there is evidence that regular cannabis use increases your risk of developing a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia
- dependency on the medicine – although scientists believe this risk is probably small when its use is controlled and monitored by a specialist doctor
Generally, the more THC the product contains, the greater these risks are.
Cannabis bought illegally off the street, where the quality, ingredients and strength are not known, is the most dangerous form to use.
What are the side effects?
After taking medical cannabis, it’s possible to develop any of the following side effects:
- decreased appetite
- feeling sick
- greater weakness
- a behavioural or mood change
- feeling very tired
- feeling high
- suicidal thoughts
If you experience any side effects from medical cannabis, report these to your medical team. You can also report them through the Yellow Card Scheme.
CBD and THC can affect how other medicines work. Always discuss possible interactions with a specialist.
CBD can also affect how your liver works, so doctors would need to monitor you regularly.
How do I get a prescription?
You cannot get cannabis-based medicine from a GP – it can only be prescribed by a specialist hospital doctor.
And it is only likely to be prescribed for a small number of patients.
A hospital specialist might consider prescribing medical cannabis if:
- your child has one of the rare forms of epilepsy that might be helped by medical cannabis
- you have spasticity from MS and treatments for this are not helping
- you have vomiting or feel sick from chemotherapy and anti-sickness treatments are not helping
The specialist will discuss with you all the other treatment options first, before considering a cannabis-based product.
A prescription for medical cannabis would only be given when it was believed to be in your best interests, and when other treatments had not worked or were not suitable.
It’s expected this would only apply to a very small number of people in England.
If the above does not apply to you, do not ask a GP for a referral for medical cannabis.
Will the laws on cannabis be relaxed?
The government has no intention of legalising the use of cannabis for recreational (non-medical) use.
Possessing cannabis is illegal, whatever you’re using it for. That includes medical use unless it has been prescribed for you.
Page last reviewed: 01 November 2018
Next review due: 01 November 2021
Information from the NHS website on medical cannabis
How to Talk to Your Physician About Medical Cannabis: 10 Points to Guide You
Living with chronic pain is challenging, especially when opioids may be less available. If you are wondering about other pain relief options—including medical cannabis—here’s a guide discussing alternatives with your doctor.
There are many ways to start a conversation with your doctor If you feel awkward bringing up the topic of medical marijuana. If you suffer from a chronic medical condition and have not found adequate relief from pain and other symptoms using traditional medicines, you may be thinking about trying medical cannabis (also commonly referred to as medical marijuana) as part of your treatment strategy.
A growing number of states (currently 31 plus the District of Columbia) have approved cannabis use for medicinal purposes to treat a host of serious and chronic medical needs from nerve pain to nausea and anxiety. (Note: the conditions which qualify for its use vary from state to state.) According to proponents, medical cannabis can relieve pain, reduce inflammation, lessen nausea/improve appetite, control epileptic seizures and more. Also of note, in a Fall 2018 PPM online patient poll, about half of respondents said they had tried medical marijuana to help alleviate their pain or pain-related symptoms.
If you have a medical condition that qualifies for medical cannabis use in your state, you can start by talking to your primary care physician about the options, benefits, and risks of using it therapeutically for your specific situation, says David Bearman, MD, a physician with 40 years of experience in the substance abuse field and author of the recent book, Drugs Are NOT the Devil’s Tools: How Greed and Discrimination Led to a Dysfunctional Drug Policy and How It Can Be Fixed.
10 Key Considerations
Before broaching the subject, It is helpful to know the basics about medical cannabis and some of the issues and concerns involved in its usage. Here are some points to help guide your conversation with your physician:
#1. Not all medical cannabis is the same.
Photo courtesy Robin R. Buckallew, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database Medical cannabis comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, and there are hundreds of different strains out there. “Cannabinoids are the molecules in the cannabis plant matter that have a medical value and perform certain actions in the body,” explains Sharmilla K Patil, MD, CAS, FDM, who serves as the CMO of Divine Balance Medical Group and CEO of Greentech Laboratories, Inc.
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Two of the best-known types of cannabinoids contained in most strains are THC (delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (the name for cannabidiol). THC causes the psychoactive effect that people typically associate with cannabis use; CBD offers many therapeutic applications without the psychoactive properties.
Most people use a strain that contains a mixture of both compounds. Experts say low doses of THC can be effective for treating anxiety, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Higher doses are typically required for pain relief.
#2. Medical cannabis can be used to treat a variety of conditions.
“Some of the more frequent reasons for cannabinoid medicine specialists [or other physicians] to recommend cannabis is to treat pain and to treat anxiety,” Dr. Bearman says. “Other common conditions that cannabis can address include [but aren’t limited to] migraines, epilepsy, ADD/ADHD, PTSD, depression, Crohn’s disease, nausea, appetite stimulant, Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and autism.” (Keep in mind that the conditions cannabis is approved to treat will depend on the state in which you live.) Your doctor may be able to discuss your condition and explain how medical cannabis can be used to address your symptoms.
Some people are not good candidates for this form of treatment. Your practitioner should be able to tell you if this is true for you. As with any medication, pregnant women should consult a doctor before use and those with schizophrenia should use cannabis only under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
In addition, Dr. Bearman points out that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers a warning for users of Marinol (prescription synthetic THC) and other psychoactive drugs, which is not to drive, operate heavy equipment or engage in dangerous activity until the substance’s affects are evaluated in them. Something to keep in mind when using medical cannabis as well.
#3. Medical cannabis comes in several forms.
Dr. Bearman suggests you ask your physician to recommend the best ratio of THC to CBD to look for in a marijuana strain, as well as to offer a suggested dosage and route of administration. Medical cannabis can be taken in a variety of forms, including being smoked, vaporized, sublingually (under the tongue), ingested, and used topically. When you visit a dispensary with your doctor’s recommendation, if the staff there is experienced and well-informed, they can also help guide you to identify the best option for the type of results you are seeking. Some patients prefer to grow their own cannabis. You can also talk to your doctor about going this route, too.
#4. Side effects are usually minor but do exist.
“While cannabis does have a few side effects, they are generally dose related and occur more frequently in novice users, and in most cases nonmedical recreational consumers,” Dr. Bearman points out. “These side effects include paranoia, panic attacks, and dysphoria [a feeling of deep uneasiness or dissatisfaction]. Therefore, the best advice with medical cannabis is to “start low and go slow,” he stresses.
#5. You don’t need a prescription for medical cannabis but you do need a physician’s recommendation.
If you are an appropriate candidate for medical cannabis treatment, your physician can provide a medical cannabis recommendation that can be used in your state. Since medical cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, doctors don’t formally prescribe it; they recommend usage. A physician’s recommendation is needed to purchase the substance at a medical marijuana dispensary.
You may also want to use the recommendation to apply for a formal medical marijuana card, which enables you to be a registered medical cannabis user in your state. (Note: The card is an optional step in many states, but be sure to find out the laws where you live.) Dr. Bearman points out that the benefit of having a medical cannabis card is to offer protection in the event you need to prove to law enforcement that you are using it for a valid medical reason. Law enforcement may ignore the doctor’s letter (the courts will recognize it, however) but the card is an official state document and can help you avoid unnecessary hassle.
#6. Cannabis use laws vary by state.
To learn the medical cannabis laws in your state, several online resources are available. Sites such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Marijuana Policy Project, and the United Patient’s Group provide information about regulations in each state. You can also call your state legislators for more information about local regulations.
It’s also important to understand that medical marijuana is prohibited under federal law but in states with controlled medical cannabis laws, patients with physician’s recommendations don’t generally need to be concerned about this. In 2014, Congress budgeted no money to enforce the federal anti-marijuana law (the Controlled Substances Act of 1970) in states where cannabis is legal. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) points out that the laws are meant to protect against drug rings and aren’t meant to target individual people using cannabis for approved therapeutic reasons.
“No patient should be worried. The states that have medical marijuana usually have amendments that protect patients and physicians from federal laws,” stresses Philip S. Kim, MD, CEO and founder of the Center for Interventional Pain Spine, LLC, in Newark, Delaware.
Dr. Kim also points out that for people in states that don’t have medical cannabis laws, they can ask their doctor about dronabinol, a synthetic THC and the generic form of Marinol, which is FDA approved and available nationwide.The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website reports that medications containing THC that are approved by the FDA can help with nausea control, improved pain, reduced inflammation and improvements in muscle control issues.
#7. There’s more than one way to start the conversation with your doctor about using cannabis therapeutically.
If you’re unsure how to bring up the subject of using medical cannabis with your doctor, Dr. Bearman has a few possible openings. Try talking about someone else you know (“a friend”) who is using medical cannabis effectively; mentioning a book on the subject that you have recently read or a documentary or news show you’ve watched or asking about research you’ve discovered on the Internet. “Any of these tactics can kick off a conversation with your doctor,” he says.
#8. Not all doctors are up on the latest research on medical cannabis.
You shouldn’t assume that your doctor is well versed in the current medical cannabis literature. One way to find out his level of knowledge is to inquire if he or she has attended any continuing education programs or workshops about cannabis recently. Dr. Bearman says that you shouldn’t be surprised if the answer is, “no.”
“Most physicians have not even been taught about the endocannabinoid system [the neurotransmitter system that cannabis affects for results], let alone the medicinal value of cannabis [the plant matter] and cannabinoids [the molecules]. Even physicians who make cannabis recommendations may be unfamiliar with its value, dosing, and/or strain in treating a less common condition that may respond favorably to cannabis,” Dr. Bearman explains. So, be sure to do your homework and understand the options and issues involved in using medical cannabis.
#9. If your physician doesn’t recommend cannabis for you, you can still find a doctor who specializes in this treatment.
If your condition qualifies you to use medical cannabis in your state and you don’t have any contraindications that make usage risky, but your primary care physician isn’t comfortable making a cannabis recommendation, ask him or her for a referral to another clinician. Medical cannabis practitioners can also be tracked down online through resources such as the Medicinal Marijuana Association.
#10. Medical cannabis use can negatively impact your career and finances.
While the majority of states have some type of medical cannabis law in place to make it accessible for patients who qualify, there are still some important implications that people should think about before they decide to use it. For instance, regular usage could impact life insurance premiums and could also put you at risk on the job in some circumstances if your employer performs drug testing and is not willing to recognize the medical benefits of this drug. (Dr. Bearman notes that the use of synthetic THC [dronabinol] will be reported as a negative test result, so this could be worth considering.)
Your best bet is to ask your doctor about the benefits and risks associated with any options you are considering so you can determine what makes the most sense for your specific symptoms and circumstances.
If you're considering trying medical cannabis for pain relief, here's how to speak with your doctor about getting a recommendation for the substance that is currently legal in 28 states.