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Three new UK studies show ‘important’ health impact of cannabis


Three new studies published in medical journals have provided further evidence that prescribing cannabis to patients living with common conditions can result in the patient experiencing ‘important life changes’ in their health.

The UK Medical Cannabis Registry is the largest database of its kind in the UK, it holds much-needed data on patients who use medical cannabis. Approved in 2022 by the Health Research Authority the database collects patient-reported outcomes and safety data. The registry aims to improve knowledge among healthcare professionals and the public in relation to cannabis, and to arm key decision makers in the NHS and the NICE with the data needed to improve patient access to cannabis.

It has been suggested that between 1.5 and 2 million people living in the UK are using cannabis to alleviate their medical symptoms, be they physical, mental or both. An estimated 20,000 people are receiving their cannabis-based medicines legally via private prescriptions, leaving a substantial number of medicinal cannabis patients who are forced into criminality by either using the black market or growing their own medicine. 

One reason there are so few legal cannabis patients compared to those who are using black or legacy market cannabis may be that many people in the UK are unaware that medicinal cannabis has been available on prescription since October 2018. According to Sapphire Medical Clinics, just 2% of people in the UK with health conditions have discussed medical cannabis in detail with their GP. This indicates that there are a large number of patients who aren’t currently, but potentially could, benefit from cannabis-based medicines if they had access to them.

Data from the registry was used by researchers who published studies on the use of cannabis to treat depression, and inflammatory bowel disease, and to conduct the largest study of childhood epilepsy in Europe. These studies looked at the general health metrics of patients, as well as specific health issues associated with each of the three conditions researched. Patients in all studies reported experiencing ‘important changes’ in general health metrics, as well as condition-specific metrics.

Simon Erridge, Head of Research and Access at Sapphire Medical Clinics said; “The high-quality research we have undertaken has helped us to further understand the long-term effects of medical cannabis. However, there is still a lack of clinical trial evidence and funding to conduct randomised controlled trials, which is necessary to be able to better evaluate the true treatment effect of medicinal cannabis before this medication will become available on the NHS.”

“By collecting, analysing, and publishing this data we are playing our part in ensuring the UK is a leader in medical cannabis research and we are committed to providing education to healthcare professionals and patients on safe and legal access to medical cannabis.”

Depression study 

The first study, published in Neurotherapeutics, involved 129 participants from the UK Medical Cannabis Registry patient database who were diagnosed with depression. In order to determine the effect on general health metrics and depression-specific metrics, participants completed questionnaires that assessed their self-reported anxiety, sleep and quality of life scores. These assessments were done at the beginning of the study, at month one, month three, and at month six.

The study, headed by Sajed Mangoo, found that “the results showed that medicinal cannabis was associated with improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as health-related quality of life, and sleep quality after 1, 3, and 6 months of treatment.”

Commenting on side effects experienced by participants from the cannabis medicine, and also about the additional research that is needed in the field, researchers continued; “Although there were numerous adverse events in a small number of patients, most of these were mild or moderate. A major limitation is that this study cannot determine the extent to which medicinal cannabis is directly responsible for the improvements in depression symptoms that were observed. Future studies should focus on conducting clinical trials which can better evaluate the true treatment effects of medicinal cannabis for depression.”

Inflammatory Bowel Disease study

IBD is a condition which has two distinct types: Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC). Both types can cause pain and uncomfortable bloating of the abdominal area, persistent diarrhoea, weight loss, malnutrition, nausea and fatigue. Living with symptoms such as these can result in patients experiencing a serious reduction in quality of life, and can present them with challenges in their home, work and social lives that are often expensive or inconvenient to overcome.

There is a global rise of people being diagnosed with IBD. It is believed that 1 in 200 western individuals live with the condition, and numbers in newly industrialised areas such as Asia, China and South America are rising rapidly. Due to this, researchers are building on previous studies looking at the treatment of IBD symptoms by cannabis that produced positive results.

Using data supplied by 76 participants who were enrolled on the UK Medical Cannabis Registry, a study published in Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology was conducted to assess quality of life scores in patients after being prescribed cannabis for IBD.

Results showed a short-term increase in quality of life in participants, especially in those who have a history of past cannabis use.

Researchers concluded that “These findings highlight the potential utility of CBMPs as an adjunctive therapeutic option in the short term, especially in patients who continue to experience debilitating symptoms despite maximal medical therapy. However, despite statistical significance, the limitations of the study design make it difficult to draw definite conclusions to support widespread utilization. Further high-quality RCTs are needed to precisely evaluate the therapeutic efficacy and long-term safety profile of CBMPs.”

Children with epilepsy study

In the UK, approximately 7 in 1000 children live with treatment-resistant epilepsy, one type of which is Dravet syndrome. Dravet syndrome is a condition that can cause the children who live with it to have 300 seizures or more a day. Traditional medication can cause severe side effects which some parents say leaves their children ‘dead behind the eyes’.    

This study involved 35 children with treatment-resistant epilepsy, the largest study in Europe to date involving cannabis and participants with this particular condition. 

The children involved in the study were all receiving a combination of CBD oils, and CBD plus THC therapy. The number of seizures patients had per month was recorded, as well as other self-reported health metrics that were collected at the beginning of the study, then again at month 1, month 3, and again at month 6.

Researchers found that “The results of this study demonstrate a positive signal of improved seizure frequency in children treated with CBMPs for TRE. Moreover, the results suggest that CBMPs are well-tolerated in the short term. The limitations mean causation cannot be determined in this open-label, case series.”

There have been thousands of studies looking into the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine, and as the science is still in its infancy when compared with the progression of other more established medicines, there is still a lot to learn. 

The three studies featured above all produced positive results in demonstrating the ability of cannabis to help patients, however, there is still much more research to be carried out before we start realising the full potential of this plant. 


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