Using cannabis for medical purposes is legal in Canada, Uruguay, Israel, Jamaica and 23 US states but has been illegal in the UK since 1971. Many groups of patients are demanding a change in the law, saying that cannabis can provide relief from a number of conditions. We conducted a survey of people in the UK living with chronic, long-term or life-limiting conditions to find out what they think.
The online survey was promoted on social media and received just under 180 responses. The respondents had been diagnosed with a wide range of conditions – including arthritis, chronic pain, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome – for which around 40 per cent had tried using cannabis. (More of them had used cannabis recreationally than medically.)
1. What is stopping you trying cannabis?
When we asked people who hadn’t tried cannabis for their medical condition why not, their answers included:
I work in education so risk being struck off if I use an illegal drug
I’m reluctant to break the law
Wouldn’t have a clue where to get it! Would definitely try it for pain though
The most common reasons given were that cannabis is illegal and that it’s difficult to get hold of, which suggests that many of the respondents would be open to trying cannabis if it were legalised for medical use.
2. Where do you get cannabis and how do you use it?
We asked the people who had tried cannabis medically how they got hold of it and how they took it.
Not unexpectedly, a significant proportion declined to tell us where they got their cannabis from. For those who did answer, the most common source was friends and family, followed by dealers. Of those who had used medical cannabis, 79 per cent said that their families and friends were aware of their cannabis use and were supportive of it.
A close friend is a policeman who when we first met 7 or so years ago was against cannabis use due to seeing its potential problematic effects on young people during work. However, this friend now fully supports the use of medical cannabis having seen the positive impact it makes when used properly
Nearly 8 out of 10 of those who used cannabis for medical purposes administered it through inhalation, using a joint, vaporiser or water pipe, and most of them took it daily.
3. How much does cannabis help you?
I would never be able to do anything without it.
It has more effect on the pain than any of the prescription painkillers I have tried
Only thing that helps, hate ‘traditional’ meds that f… you sooooo bad
It’s the only thing that helps.
Of the 72 people who had used cannabis for medical reasons, 70 said it improved their condition to at least some extent, but a high proportion had stopped using it. The reasons for this are similar to those given by the people who had never tried medical cannabis:
I can’t get it legally.
Too difficult to source
Unable to obtain.
We asked those who were still using medical cannabis if they had any concerns. Again, legality was a major issue – 10 of them had been arrested, cautioned or convicted because of their cannabis use. Other worries mentioned include cost, uncertainty about the quality of the cannabis and their safety when meeting a dealer.
The only concern I have is the legality. I’m an otherwise law abiding citizen and breaking the law on a daily basis does not sit well with me. I comfort myself with the knowledge that the law surrounding this substance is, at best, misguided, at worst outright lunacy.
Always concerned about the quality and the cost is tremendous.
No none. I have the backing of my consultant and M.P.
Never felt concerned except when I was going to collect from my dealer. I’m a 64-year-old great grandmother!
4. Should cannabis be legalised?
An overwhelming majority of the respondents, 95 per cent, supported the legalisation of cannabis for medical reasons. Most thought that cannabis should be legal only for medical use, but 41 per cent believed anybody or any adult over a certain age should be able to buy cannabis legally.
Although the sample for our survey was small, and not necessarily representative of the broader population, similar support for legalisation has been found in other larger surveys of patients. A US survey of 5,665 people with multiple sclerosis (MS), carried out by the North American Research Committee on Multiple Sclerosis, found that 92 per cent thought cannabis should be legal.
It is perhaps unsurprising that patients who view cannabis as their best or last option to relieve their condition are likely to support its legalisation. Although most of the respondents to our survey who had tried cannabis said it had a great improvement on their conditions, the evidence from medical research is lacking. For example, a review published this summer found moderate evidence that cannabis can help with spasticity in MS, and with neuropathic and chronic pain, but the evidence for other conditions was weaker.
Policy makers need to weigh up the desires of patients against wider concerns around the legalisation of cannabis and the lack of conclusive evidence – as yet – that it can be widely beneficial as a medicine.
With thanks to Katharine Quarmby and the Wellcome Trust’s Evaluation Team.