The cost of living crisis is affecting medical cannabis patients

With soaring bills and a cost of living crisis, it can be a difficult time for patients who may be struggling to afford their cannabis prescriptions. Desperate times can mean desperate measures which may mean resorting to cutbacks or returning to NHS medications. 

As a medical cannabis patient, I’m all too aware of the bills associated with my prescription including appointment and product costs. However, cannabis is the only thing that has worked on my ADHD, allowing me to get to sleep.

I won’t lie that the check-up fees can leave me searching for a spare £50 and I have to shift things around to afford it. I have also decided not to try an additional ‘daytime’ CBD dominant product because it would dramatically increase my costs.

I’m not the only one.

These choices are becoming all too common across social media as patients share tales of rationing, returning to legacy market products to avoid fees and going back to NHS painkillers despite side effects.

Matthew Taylor works with PLEA, a patient-led, non-profit, community interest company. He has struggled to afford his medication this year. His prescription meant he has been able to come off heavy pain medication but he has gone without cannabis when money is tight. 

“I’ve had to borrow from a relative this year just to get medication which is humbling and humiliating. My kids are at clubs where we are trying to keep them in a safe space where they can experience the social aspect which costs but they come first,” Matthew explained. 

“There are times when I come to the end of my medication before I can get more. When that happens, I go back to the pain I was in before. Since I’ve had cannabis, all the fentanyl and Tramadol have all gone. When my medical cannabis is gone, I’m straight back to the pain I was in prior and it is immense.”

When my medical cannabis is gone, I’m straight back to the pain I was in prior and it is immense

Matthew has been going to physiotherapy which has helped him to regain strength but he has noted that his health was set back by the number of months he was off medication. He had a few falls during that time.

“I had medication for a few months because of the falls but I’ve really been set back and my mood was down again because of it,” he said.

Clinics can offer access programs or funding schemes where patients can apply if they are struggling. Dr Simon Erridge, Head of Research and Access at Sapphire Clinics says there has been a rise in the number of funding applications.

“We’ve seen some patients where it has been challenging for them to be able to access medications and they happen to be in situations where they are making decisions between health and other important costs for them,” he confirmed. 

“A large number of patients who access medical cannabis in the UK aren’t able to work due to the symptoms of the condition they are seeking treatment for. As the cost of living increases, there is no real sign that benefits will rise which will make it difficult for patients along with increasing costs of energy bills.”

“I am a founding trustee of the associated independent charity called Sapphire Medical Foundation and we have a grant funding round at the minute where people are applying for assistance with the cost of medical cannabis prescriptions, and we have seen a real massive uptake in the number of patients applying,” he added.

The answer to increasing costs could be making cannabis available through the NHS but there is still a need for an evidence base which can persuade doctors to prescribe. 

“There are a lot of associated costs of production, manufacture and importation of medical cannabis which are the same as everything we see affected by inflation or rising energy costs. The real answer is to develop the evidence base so that there is a real argument for it to be available to the right people on the NHS,” Simon said.

Mags Houston is the Head of Projects and Communications at Drug Science. Project Twenty21, which is run by Drug Science, is the largest observational medical cannabis study which gathers data on cannabis-based medicines for a wide range of conditions. 

Project Twenty21 products are capped at £150 per product as long as the product is in their formulary. Multiple products may mean a person goes over that cap. Patients sign up anonymously to contribute data – which works towards that evidence base.

She is concerned about the effects of patients possibly reducing or stopping a prescription but isn’t surprised. The clinic costs for cannabis can be a huge problem for patients.

“At Project Twenty21, we cap the price as long as it’s from our formulary and by our producers. If a patient is reducing their prescription but based on cost rather than health needs, then it can skew our data,” she said.

“That has brought down the price of medical cannabis across all producers more widely over three years but we know that £150 is still high. It does concern me that patients may be trying to reduce how much of their prescription they use to make it last longer. It would not surprise me.”

“The cost of medical cannabis is very much on par with the cost of cannabis though the illicit market – but it’s the clinical costs. The appointments with the clinics make it more expensive. Some offer free repeat prescriptions but appointments need to be paid for so you can see how the costs increase,” she explained.

When it comes to solutions, there are few in a world of rapidly rising costs but it’s clear change is needed. 

“I hope that there will be more producers and products in the market which creates healthy competition and that drives down the cost of cannabis. My long-term hope is that we can make these medications available on the NHS which is the whole point of Twenty21,” Mags said.

Matt agreed: “Companies that are helping patients to get access are trying to keep costs as low as they can. They need to make a profit to survive though. I would like to see the NHS do more research so it can be widely recognised as a viable medication and costs could be taken up by the NHS but this could take years.”

Carolyn DeBarra

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