LAST week a flurry of positive announcements from across the UK’s medical cannabis industry were unveiled in signs the industry is wasting no time in shaking off the stagnation of 2022.
Firstly, new data published by the government has provided the latest insight into the size and growth of the industry throughout 2022.
Privately prescribed unlicensed cannabis-based medicines between November 2018 and January 2022 were 47,525, according to figures published in July 2022.
According to the new data published by the government last week, between November 2018 and July 2022 this total has now risen significantly to 89,239.
This suggests that a further 41,525 private unlicensed prescriptions were issued during that time; however as the data is not broken down by month, and due to the nature of reporting in the UK, we’re unable to accurately determine how many of these newly reported prescriptions may have taken place in 2021.
As BusinessCann has previously reported, pharmacies are not required to send this information to the NHS straight away, resulting in a significant lag in accurate data. This can see figures updated well over a year after they were initially reported.
Regardless, the figures still point to significant and likely accelerating growth in private unlicensed prescriptions in the UK.
Meanwhile, licensed private prescriptions also showed growth. Between January 2018 and April 2022, licensed prescriptions stood at 133. Between November 2018 and October 2022 there were 140, meaning there were seven more prescriptions in a period four months shorter.
Currently, there are three licensed cannabis medicines available in the UK, including Nabilone, Sativex and Epidyolex, with both of the latter two drugs being produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, now owned by Jazz Pharmaceuticals.
Licensed prescriptions on the NHS between November 2018 and July 2022 were also reported to be 11,976, compared with the 12,060 between January 2018 and April 2022.
As with the previous declarations of data from the UK government, the number of unlicensed cannabis-based prescriptions on the NHS is ‘withheld in accordance with the GDPR, due to the number of items attributed to fewer than five patients and the elevated risk of potential patient identifiable information’.
Beating a pathway to the NHS
In a potentially significant development, last week Khiron Life Sciences announced that it had received, ‘for the first time, full reimbursement by the NHS of costs associated with cannabis-based medication’.
While there have been some suggestions that this could constitute the fourth unlicensed NHS prescription since the change in law in 2018, and the first since 2020, this has not yet been confirmed.
BusinessCann has contacted Khiron for clarification and intends to publish details of the situation as soon as a response is given.
In more hopeful news relating to NHS prescriptions, the Cannabis Industry Council (CiC) and Drug Science announced the launch of a new joint project aimed at ‘providing the NHS with the economic case for expanding cannabis prescriptions’.
The project, which is being supported by Glass Pharms, Ethypharm and Rua Bioscience, will develop an economic modelling tool to consider the costs, resource use and utility of medical cannabis, and assess the viability of prescribing cannabis on the NHS.
Drug Science’s Head of Research, Anne Katrin Shlag, said: “For any future NHS approval, it is important to find out whether medical cannabis will be cost-effective when compared to other treatments currently available.”
Despite these developments, the government appears to be sticking to its well-trodden line on the issue.
In a written response from Minister of State for Health and Social Care Will Quince to questions from within his own party on ‘what assessments have been made of the merits of expanding the use of medical cannabis’, he stated that no assessment had been made.
“Licensed cannabis-based medicines are routinely available on the National Health Service; however, clinical guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence demonstrate a clear need for more evidence to support routine prescribing and funding decisions for unlicensed cannabis-based products for medicinal use in humans. Until that evidence base is built, prescribers will remain reticent to prescribe and no decision can be made by the NHS on routine funding.”
4C Labs co-founder and co-chair of the CiC’s Medical Cannabis Subcommittee James Smith told BusinessCann: “The NHS funding even one patient is a fantastic step in the right direction. I do not know the details of the situation, but we believe that patience and tenacity will eventually result in some level of patient support from the NHS.
“We firmly believe that the NHS needs to assist the parents of children with epilepsy. The cost of private medication is crippling. The greatest tragedy is that these parents are saving the NHS thousands of pounds by not having to visit the hospital for seizures, as the medicine is working. The CIC and 4C Labs are actively trying to solve these issues.
Progress throughout the supply chain
The week also saw a number of significant developments along the UK medical cannabis supply chain.
Celadon Pharmaceuticals announced last week that the MHRA had granted it an EU GMP licence for the manufacturing of high-THC APIs.
However, it is understood that Celadon has become the only company after GW Pharma, the world’s largest exporter of medical cannabis products, to receive EU GMP approval for high-THC APIs.
It is also the second after GW Pharma to have licences to both cultivate and manufacture APIs.
Days later, Scottish cultivator Hilltop Leaf announced that it had secured £2m in private investment from Traditum and other investors.
According to the company, the investment will enable it to begin making its first commercial sales and scale its operations to become one of the largest medical cannabis producers in the UK.
Both of these companies aim to ease the UK’s current reliance on medical cannabis imports from abroad.
Hilltop’s CEO, Hamish Clegg, said: “We plan to rival other countries such as Canada, Germany and Israel with our own reliable supply from the hills of Scotland.”