Hundreds of people have been prescribed medical cannabis under a pioneering scheme in a bid to make it more available on the NHS. The Twenty21 project subsidises costly cannabis treatments for conditions like pain, anxiety, epilepsy and neurological issues. It aims to create the largest body of evidence for medical cannabis in Europe and convince lawmakers and health bosses to offer it on the NHS.
Since January more than 1,400 have signed up to the scheme run by the charity Drug Science.Founder and chairman Prof David Nutt, a former government drugs tsar, said preliminary results made him feel “vindicated” about cannabis’s effectiveness. But even with subsidies – paid for by cannabis growers – many patients stump up a typical £150 prescription charge each month to treat their condition.
Jim Finch, 32, needs three prescriptions a month and had to sell his house to fund treatment. He developed severe neurological issues and Tourette syndrome after a crash in 2018.
He said of medical cannabis: “It gives me the ability to live, laugh and love. They are such basic things that we take for granted. But when you can’t walk or talk, or you’re just violently shaking, muscles spasming in ways you didn’t think possible, it’s no life… it’s given me life.”
Cannabis-based medicines including oils, flowers and vape products were legalised in the UK in 2018. But these can only be prescribed by a specialist doctor, not GPs, and only three NHS prescriptions have been issued.
According to the NHS, cannabis was “likely to benefit a very small number of patients”.Prof Nutt hopes data will allay misgivings and fears – and claims thousands of pounds can be saved if it reduces hospitalisations.
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He added: “It works and reduces symptoms and improves wellbeing. And it is safe. You’re not seeing psychosis in any of our people. They’re not using skunk, they’re not using spice. They’re using a regulated, balanced mixture of CBD and THC.”
Preliminary results from Project Twenty21 claimed quality of life had improved by 50%.
But Prof Nutt – sacked as a drug tsar in 2009 after claiming horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy – claimed doctors and the NHS “systematically block” efforts to offer cannabis treatments.
The Department of Health said: “Licensed cannabis-based medicines are funded by the NHS where there is clear evidence of… quality, safety and effectiveness.”
‘Medical cannabis has changed my life’
Dad-of-two Jim Finch would never have dreamed of taking cannabis – until his life was turned upside down.
Following a horror crash in 2018 he suffers fibromyalgia – bodily pain – speaking difficulties, functional neurological disorder and Tourette syndrome.
Prescription-medicine benzodiazepines and opioids made him feel “terrible”.
Jim, who was an assistant depot manager for SCF Sofas, managed to get a private medical cannabis prescription which cost him £1,000 for a 10-day supply.
With Project Twenty21, these costs have reduced to £450 a month, although he still spends a number of days unmedicated.
It means Jim and his wife have had to sell their house in Essex to pay for his treatment.
Despite some snags, including stock issues which forced him to buy on the black market, Jim says medical cannabis has changed his life.
He said: “Every day when I can’t talk or walk my missus will bring over my vaporiser,
“I’ll have some medicine and then I can again.
“So every day I’m getting these benefits – I’m reliving the power of this medicine.
“And yet I’m still having to have the stress of wondering how I’m going to pay for it.”
Jim now posts “before and after” videos on YouTube showing the effect of the medical cannabis treatment. He calls for an amnesty for anyone growing cannabis for medical use and wants to raise awareness of treatment.
He adds: “I know people are out there suffering as badly as I was and don’t even know cannabis is an option.”
Lawyer, 61, wants UK to grow and tax it
At 61, Julie Gould is not your stereotypical cannabis user – but she believes the UK should grow it and tax it.
The former international corporate lawyer, from South West London, said: “I was the only person at university who never touched it.
“I suppose it’s my background – very working class, Catholic Irish, you just did not touch anything like that. I wasn’t against it, I just didn’t consider it.”
But after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994, she occasionally used “weed” to relieve painful symptoms.
She contacted Project Twenty21 after years of struggling with restless leg syndrome, often linked with MS. She explained: “The feeling is horrible, like bugs crawling deep in your skin, and it makes you angry and wound-up. You need to walk to rid these sensations, and you can’t sleep.”
A study in 2019 found RLS sufferers had an increased risk of suicide. But the condition is little understood.
After being prescribed cannabis oil, Julie was able to sleep three hours straight for the first time in 10 years.
Now she uses it to control nausea from buprenorphine, which gives her a full night’s sleep. Julie is campaigning to raise awareness of RLS and access to medicinal cannabis. She went on: “I know, as more people access it, the cost will go down.
“That’s why I want to see the Government grow it for use in the UK. Let’s tax cannabis. Let’s grow it, make it big business, make it nationalised business, and put that money into rehab, to make things better.”