With a fresh new year ahead of us, it’s always tempting to simply look forward to the exciting events and challenges that lie ahead rather than taking stock of all that happened in the year prior. But, undoubtedly, a lot happened in the cannabis space in 2019, with some news being promising, some confirming that we still have a long way to go.
In this article, we take a look back at some of the biggest news stories in the cannabis industry in 2019 so we can see where the cannabis industry, patient access and medical advancement is headed this year.
The Vaping Crisis
The vaping crisis was undoubtedly one of the biggest cannabis news stories of the year, with fears over the safety of THC vaping products causing widespread alarm across the US.
With the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging people to stop vaping THC products from September last year whilst an investigation into a mysterious bout of lung disease cases was ongoing, the cannabis market was driven to lows unseen since the summer of 2017.
This was particularly worrying for the cannabis market overall as vaping and vape products form a substantial and rapidly growing segment of the industry. Scaremongering here had the potential to harm the whole industry, particularly as such CDC supported health concerns seemed likely to hamper fights for legalisation as the sale of potentially harmful products is one of the main arguments for maintaining current regulation.
But of course, what was more pertinent for the public was concerns over the health of those choosing to vape THC products. Many were, and still are, left wondering if THC products are safe to vape and what the investigation actually means for THC users.
While the results of the CDC investigation seem relatively unclear, with the public health institute originally linking the lung issues to THC use (but the THC use in question often being from illegal, counterfeit products), it is now believed that the issues arose due to an additive used to thicken THC oils – Vitamin E Acetate. With a number of different factors at play, with some affected saying they only smoked nicotine products, the investigation hasn’t led to an obvious or resounding conclusion yet. Perhaps this year we’ll get the answers we’re looking for.
Updates to the NICE guidelines
However, while this move by the institute initially seemed like a step in the right direction for medical cannabis prescription, the public consensus on the move was mixed at best, with many left outraged by the body’s decision.
This was mainly because NICE stated that whole-plant products should not be made available for use on the NHS. The body also prompted additional consternation from the public as the guidelines stated that patients with chronic pain would not be able to access cannabis-based drugs as ‘the potential benefits offered were small compared with the high and ongoing costs’.
Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the cannabis-based medicines made available on the NHS were made accessible only to those suffering from a limited number of medical conditions.
In the updates, Epidyolex, a substance containing cannabidiol (CBD), was recommended only for those specifically suffering from Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes – very rare forms of childhood-onset epilepsy.
With multiple conditions that could’ve potentially been treated with medical cannabis (like chronic pain, fibromyalgia and more common epilepsy disorders) being overlooked, it’s easy to see why NICE’s guidelines were met with dismay from many who hoped their conditions could finally be treated on the NHS.
These guidelines instead appeared to suggest only minor updates to the existing regulation, for the treatment of a very limited number of clinical indications.
Sluggish Progress in the UK
With these NICE guidelines in mind, we saw sluggish progress on the medical cannabis front in the UK last year, as a severely limited number of patients have been able to access cannabis-based medicines due to a lack of doctors prescribing in the UK.
This was particularly disappointing as, with it being a year since medical cannabis was legalised, many had hoped medicines would be more easily accessible for a wider number of conditions by this point.
One of the main reasons behind this lack of prescription from UK doctors may be that only doctors who are on the General Medical Council’s Specialist Register are allowed to prescribe cannabis-based medicines for a very limited group of patients in a very limited number of circumstances.
And even with this limited group of people prescribing for a limited group of patients, further restrictions to access were put in place when it was deemed that cannabis-based medicines should only be prescribed by the GMC specialists when:
- Exceptional clinical circumstances had been established
- All regularly used medical alternatives have been tried and deemed ineffective
- An agreement is reached with an NHS Trust medical director around the proposed product’s use
- Agreement is gained from a medical director at the NHS trust
However, there is hope for progress in 2020 as doctors are increasingly educated around medical cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. Once doctors feel more educated in this area, the hope is that they’ll feel more confident prescribing, so more patients will gain access to the medicines they need (for more information on why doctors still aren’t prescribing a year on from legalisation, click here).
Our Medical Cannabis Training for Doctors is one such programme providing comprehensive support for medical professionals, giving them a clear roadmap of training and education so they feel prepared to prescribe for patients and deliver the results they’re seeking.
To sign up to our training programme, click here.
Despite the disappointing lack of prescriptions in the U.K last year, the news announcing Project Twenty21 brought some much needed hope for the future of medical cannabis use and prescription.
On November 7th of 2019, Drug Science, ‘the leading independent scientific body on drugs in the UK’, launched Project Twenty21 with the aim of enrolling 20,000 patients for medical cannabis trials by the end of 2021 to develop a body of evidence for the efficacy of medical cannabis. With the abundance of evidence gained from these trials, it is hoped that it will become clear to policy makers that medical cannabis should be made readily available and affordable for patients.
With policy makers swayed by the evidence, it is then hoped that more doctors will be encouraged to prescribe with less fear.
Dr Raphael Mechoulam’s Latest Discovery
Raphael Mechoulam, dubbed ‘the father of cannabis research’ due to his highly influential research on the ‘entourage effect’ of cannabis back in the 90s, revealed his latest discovery in Pasadena in September.
Mechoulam’s talk revealed his newest innovation in the form of synthetic cannabinoid compounds that are fit for clinical use. These compounds, Mechoulam suggests, may be more therapeutically effective than CBD when used for the treatment of conditions like depression and anxiety.
As stated in his talk at CannMed, Mechoulam believes that investigating these cannabinoid acids further could lead to potential medical uses in the future. We eagerly await the findings of Mechoulam’s continued research in this area in the coming years.
For more in depth information on medical cannabis, UK policy and the conditions medical cannabis can treat, we recommend accessing our in depth modules available on our website. Here, you can find up to date information on cannabis based medicinal products and how best to prescribe them. You can also explore our news section and evidence base for the latest information on this ever-changing area of research.
We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.