The UK charity behind ambitious cannabis research programs in Australia and the UK has told of the continuing barriers facing patients as it struggles to overcome stigma and ignorance surrounding the medicine.

Drug Science, which runs Project Twenty21 (T21), Europe’s largest observational study of medicinal cannabis, set out to recruit 20,000 patients by the end of 2021 when it launched in 2018.

But four months into 2022, just 2,500 have been recruited.

It is arguably seeing faster uptake in Australia, where it has enrolled 100 patients, having only launched the project in collaboration with Releaf Group and the Australian College of Cannabinoid Medicine in February.

Speaking at the CBD Show in London, head of T21 Mags Houston said it was ”proud” of its progress, but conceded it was “way off” its initial target in the UK, with blinkered attitudes to cannabis remaining a key barrier.

“There are lots of reasons [for the shortfall], but the greatest reason in my eyes is there is still so much stigma around cannabis and this is something we are trying to quash with the work we are doing with Drug Science,” she said.

Among the greatest frustrations is dealing with advocacy groups, Houston revealed. Despite the “huge” relief that medicinal cannabis could provide patients, getting in front of charities and explaining the potential benefits of the medicine remains “tricky”.

She said it was “surprising” how groups such as the MS Society and Multiple Sclerosis UK are reluctant to engage with T21.

“We are always contacting them about potentially giving educational talks and taking part in their conferences, anything we can possibly do to tap into that cannabis-naive audience,” Houston said.

But more often than not, their approaches are rebuffed, she added.

“It is something we are going to really push this year because there are people who could be potential patients of projects like ours, who might benefit from medical cannabis, but who have never tried it and don’t know that it could be available to them.”

Houston said P21 invited “every charity we could possibly think of” to an event at the House of Lords in February, including the MS Society, “but we didn’t even hear back”.

“We had a few charities there, but it’s disappointing how slowly they are on the uptake,” she said. “A few months ago I reached out to Cancer Research UK as the information on their website was outdated and incorrect. The number of hoops I had to jump through just to speak to the right person was ridiculous. Even then it was ‘I’m not really sure how quickly we can get that updated’.

“The bigger the charity, the bigger the hurdles tend to be.”

Mags Houston: “Incredibly restrictive rules”

Houston also blamed the slow enrolment of patients in T21 on the poor awareness of medicinal cannabis in the UK and the inability to access it through the country’s National Health Service (NHS).

Only three whole-plant prescriptions have been written through the NHS in the three-and-a-half years since medicinal cannabis was legalised in the UK, Houston said, a situation she described as a “disgraceful state of affairs”.

Such a paltry number was down to the “incredibly restrictive” guidelines set down by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), she explained.

“Currently, an NHS doctor cannot get funding for a medical cannabis product to treat something like chronic pain or psychiatric conditions such as PTSD and anxiety disorders,” Houston told delegates. “And what makes it even more difficult for doctors to prescribe through the NHS is a lack of education and a lack of peer support, which means doctors are just not confident in prescribing medicinal cannabis.

“That is one of the things we do at Drug Science. We provide medical cannabis education for doctors and medical practitioners who want to learn more, who want to help one another understand how medicinal cannabis works on the body and how prescribing works in the UK.”

Further hampering access is that GPs are forbidden from initiating a medical cannabis prescription and can only do so as part of a shared healthcare plan with specialists.

Houston stressed medicinal cannabis can be accessed privately, but said awareness of that option was low.

“Even the pro-cannabis crowd at 4/20 this week were not aware of the law,” she said.

“We have a big challenge ahead, not only to get the numbers up, but around educating people about medicinal cannabis and letting them know it is available through the private healthcare system.”

Steve has reported for a number of consumer and B2B titles over a journalism career spanning more than three decades. He is a regulator contributor to health journal, The Medical Republic, writing on...