I grew up in apartheid South Africa and recall the sweet smell of ‘dagga’ (SA street lingo for cannabis), that wafted from the workers, or gardeners, quarters at my primary school. The workers, who were all black at that time, generally used cannabis in large amounts to survive the drudgery of their apartheid existence. They were all migrant workers with families who tragically lived far away. They barely survived on a minimum wage, doing menial unskilled labour. Their bloodshot eyes, clouded awareness and sweet bodily aroma made me aware at a very young age, that the torpor due to their excessive cannabis use could not be good for either their physical or mental health. Apartheid has many wrongs to answer for; the mental and physical health of the majority comes close to the top of the list.
It would be decades later as a MS researcher that I would discover, from the MouseDoctors, that cannabis could have real benefits for pwMS. Our research led to the development of THC as a symptomatic treatment for pwMS and should also have led to the development of THC as an add-on neuroprotective drug for people with more advanced MS. Unfortunately, the phase 2 neuroprotective trial we were involved in was done at a time when we did not have the insights we now have about the EDSS (not fit for purpose), asynchronous progressive MS, nor that MS is a length-dependent axonopathy. I am confident that if we had the opportunity to do a trial of THC as an add-on neuroprotective agent in more advanced MS we would design the trial very differently and have more than a fighting chance of getting a positive result.
Although we do have a licensed cannabinoid for the treatment of MS-related spasticity we can’t prescribe it under the NHS. Sativex, which contains the active ingredients of cannabis (THC and CBD), cannot be prescribed as it has not been ‘NICEd’. Sativex has not bee shown to be cost-effective. This is very frustrating as so many of our patients would benefit from this drug. This very unfortunate situation forces many pwMS in the UK to buy street cannabis. As a neurologist I can’t sanction this; cannabis is illegal in the UK and I would be putting myself at risk if I prescribed, or even recommended, street cannabis. I am aware that in other parts of the world, where cannabis has been legalised for medicinal use, neurologists can prescribe cannabis.
How to get around this problem in the UK? I have recently started prescribing nabilone, a licensed small molecule drug that works on the CB1 receptor. CB1 is the cannabinoid receptor responsible for THC’s anti-spastic effects. Nabilone is licensed in the UK for the control of nausea and vomiting, caused by chemotherapeutic agents and used in the treatment of cancer. I have recently had two patients who were using excessive street cannabis to control their spasticity and nocturnal leg spasms. Nabilone at a dose of 2 mg twice of day has allowed both these patients to stop smoking street cannabis and both have noted improved control of their spasticity. On the plus side both these patients have stopped smoking cannabis, which in itself has health benefits in that they are not exposing their lungs to smoke.
Please be aware that the use of off-label nabilone is not ideal and in a perfect world we would have unfettered access to Sativex. What is galling is that Sativex was developed, and made, in the UK by a small start-up Pharma company. If the NHS does not support its own, UK-based, Pharma industry what hope is there for Pharma UK? This is in distinct contrast to France and Germany, where the politicians go out of their way to make sure their national healthcare systems support their own, home-grown, Pharma Companies. Is this nepotism? Is this the reason Trumpster’s want to the UK to shut down NICE?
Please note that some patients are prescribed Sativex in the UK under the IFR (individual funding request) system, via patient access schemes paid for by individual NHS Trust’s and not NHS England, or via the private prescription route.