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Can Cannabis help the UK avoid becoming a nation of “Pill-Poppers”?

Jon L - September 12, 2019 - 1 comment


One in four British adults is being prescribed potentially addictive prescription drugs according to a report from Public Health England (PHE) who calls for the creation of a national helpline to ensure Britain avoids an epidemic like that of the US.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the findings were “alarming” and warned that Britain was now “in the grip of an over medication crisis”

Key Report Findings:

  • 12 million adults have been prescribed at least one of these drugs in the last year
  • 50% of which had been continuously prescribed for at least the previous 12 months. Between 22% and 32% had received a prescription for at least the previous 3 years
  • long-term prescribing of opioid pain medicines and benzodiazepines occur frequently which is not in line with the guidelines or evidence on the effectiveness
  • Often, patients were taking more than one type of treatment, with more than half a million people on a cocktail of opioids and antidepressants
  • The number of prescriptions for antidepressants and gabapentinoids are rising

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said, “This indicates the severe lack of alternatives to drug therapies for many conditions and where effective alternatives are known and exist, inadequate and unequal access to them across the country”.

Can Medicinal Cannabis help?

A recent survey of medical cannabis patients in the UK found that 65% of all cannabis patients are treating pain and over 50% treating depression and/or anxiety, the majority of whom have reduced or replaced their prescribed medications with cannabis.

For all 5 categories of drugs PHE report, cannabis is perceived by patients to be a safer and more efficacious option for them. 

  • opioid pain medications
  • antidepressants
  • gabapentinoids
  • benzodiazepines
  • Z-drugs

Of the patients surveyed, 50% reported reducing or replacing their pain medications, 29% replacing anti-depressants, 16% replacing gabapentinoids and 6% replacing sleeping pills. Some patients have replaced them all.


2018 Medical Cannabis Patient Survey - United Patients Alliance

From 2018 Medical Cannabis Patient Survey – United Patients Alliance


Most medical cannabis patients suffer from multiple symptoms and are prescribed multiple medications. Almost everyone tells us cannabis can address most, if not all, their symptoms whilst significantly reducing the use of and dependence on these other medications. 


With over 1 million UK patients choosing cannabis over their prescribed medications it is surely an opportunity for wider distribution of quality controlled and standardised Cannabis-Based Medicinal Products (CBMPs) via the NHS. This would help a sizable portion of the population avoid the potential risks associated with procuring cannabis from the illicit market.

Patient Voices

Bill Griffin, patient, freelance writer and British expat living in Belgium

“I was suffering several chronic symptoms due to a benign tumour on my adrenal gland and slipped discs in my lower back. I was taking pills for anti-anxiety, insomnia, pain management and hypertension. I was in a zombie-like state leaving me depressed with suicidal thoughts. When my doctor prescribed me antidepressants I realised it was a vicious spiral and sought a natural alternative. My research led me to cannabis and I was able to avoid all tablets, except those for hypertension (which were greatly reduced). Cannabis has vastly improved my health and wellbeing and has made life worth living again.”

Patient, Carer and Advocate 

“I got myself off amitriptyline, Gabapentin, opiate painkillers by using 4:1 and 1:1 CBD to THC cannabis oils. Many of my members have been able to reduce or come off completely quite a few different medications”

Patient with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome

“Stopped amitriptyline, Stopped Dihydrocodeine Halved co-codamol”


2018 Medical Cannabis Patient Survey - United Patients Alliance

From 2018 Medical Cannabis Patient Survey – United Patients Alliance

Why has the UK not adopted a broader approach to the prescription of more effective and safer CBMPs?

You only need to look at the recent NICE Draft Guideline whose recommendations are based on a limited selection of evidence from around the world. The guideline states, for instance, “some evidence showed that cannabis-based medicinal products reduce chronic pain, but the treatment effect was modest”. More worryingly, it states the evidence did not show a reduction in opioid use.”


This is inaccurate as it only considers Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) data, which is inappropriate for measuring the efficacy of CBMPs, and dismisses the majority of the existing peer-reviewed evidence. The problem with RCTs is that only one formulation of CBMP is trialled against a placebo and so the results will always be limited. Where a range of different strength CBMPs is offered, efficacy improves from ~20% to ~80%. In addition, there is growing evidence showing that where US States have introduced an easy access medical cannabis policy, opiate-related deaths and addiction have reduced by an average of 24.8%


With the British Pain Society reporting up to 28 million chronic pain sufferers in the UK today and with prescribing for depression and anxiety both on the rise, any opportunity to address this must surely be a priority and with other worrying issues for patients and our NHS on the horizon such as the potential shortage of medicines likely to result from #Brexit along with UK Doctors being strongly encouraged to reduce the number of hospital specialist referrals due to lack of budget, cannabis’ effectiveness in treating multiple conditions may even extend to solving multiple issues within our healthcare systems? 


For patients, parents and carers and for the future of our NHS, better access to CBMPs could be just what the doctor ordered. 

Jon Liebling – CPASS Co-Founding Director

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1 comment

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