BlogRare conditions medical cannabis may be prescribed for in the UK

Rare conditions medical cannabis may be prescribed for in the UK

9 min read

Sam North

Rare conditions medical cannabis may be prescribed for in the UK

With Rare Disease Day upon us, let's take this opportunity to have a look at how certain rare health conditions may benefit from medical cannabis and how medical cannabis has already been prescribed in the UK to treat some rare conditions.


Although medical cannabis has been a legal reality here in the UK since November 2018, its uptake has been slow. Despite the extensive list of potential therapeutic benefits that the cannabis sativa L. genus is associated with, there is still a certain level of scepticism, stigma, and uncertainty surrounding its application as a legitimate medicinal option.

Thankfully, that's starting to change, and we are seeing both patients and specialists open up to the idea of cannabis being more than just a recreational drug. The global view and legal status of cannabis are shifting quickly, and this is resulting in researchers finally being afforded the opportunity to explore the potential of this powerful plant in more detail and without fear of backlash.

What are rare diseases?

The UK government classifies any disease that affects less than 1 in 2000 people as a "rare disease". That may not seem like a lot, but when you consider that there are over 7,000 rare diseases affecting millions of people worldwide, it's clear that these conditions require attention and support, even if they don't make headlines.

Rare diseases include genetic conditions, autoimmune disorders, and some cancers. Many of these conditions have limited traditional treatment options available (or none at all), resulting in a significant impact on the quality of life for those affected.

Medical cannabis has been shown to offer sufferers of some rare diseases a viable complementary treatment option, providing relief and, in some cases, even improving their condition's underlying causes.

The human face of rare medical conditions

Without a few notable high-profile cases where medical cannabis proved to be a life-changing treatment option, medical cannabis in the UK may still be languishing in the margins of alternative medicine.

Not only did these cases put a spotlight on the potential of medical cannabis, but they also showcased just how important it is to find alternative treatment options for rare diseases.

The stories of Billy Caldwell, Alfie Dingley, and Ben Griffiths: A fight for epilepsy treatment

In 2018, the UK government decided to allow medical cannabis to be prescribed in certain cases where other treatments have failed. This decision was a direct result of the high-profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, both young boys suffering from severe and rare forms of epilepsy.

Both had been receiving treatment with medical cannabis abroad, resulting in significant improvement in their seizures and overall quality of life. However, when they returned to the UK, their prescribed medical cannabis oil was confiscated, leading to public outcry and a change in policy. It took less than 5 days for young Billy’s condition to deteriorate without his oil, and Alfie's parents were forced to move to the Netherlands to continue his treatment.

Ben Griffiths' case further highlighted the potential of medical cannabis for epilepsy treatment. After struggling with severe epilepsy since birth, Ben found that traditional medication had little effect on his condition's severity or frequency. However, after being prescribed medical cannabis oil, his seizures have dropped from more than 300 per day to less than five.

These three cases spurred the UK government to review its policies surrounding medical cannabis, eventually resulting in its legalisation.

Rare conditions that have already been prescribed medical cannabis in the UK

Besides epilepsy, which is by far the most common rare condition that has been prescribed medical cannabis in the UK, there are quite a few others that have also seen success with this treatment option. These include:

  • Chronic Pain: While not technically a rare condition, chronic pain affects millions of people worldwide, and many suffer from conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic neuropathic pain, which are considered rare. Medical cannabis has been shown to help with certain types of pain, reducing reliance on traditional opioids and their severe side effects.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS): MS is a neurological disorder affecting the central nervous system, causing symptoms such as muscle spasms, pain, and mobility issues. Medical cannabis has emerged as a promising treatment option for MS, providing pain relief and improving overall quality of life.
  • Parkinson's Disease: This progressive nervous system disorder has no cure and few treatment options. However, medical cannabis has shown great promise in helping sufferers of Parkinson's regain control of their lives by heavily reducing symptoms such as tremors and muscle stiffness.
  • Huntington's Disease: A rare genetic disorder that causes difficulty with motor skills, cognition, and emotions. While there is no cure for Huntington's, medical cannabis has been shown to reduce symptoms related to movement and mood.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a mental health disorder that can occur following a traumatic experience. It is a complex mental health issue and one that has no single cure. But a combination of traditional therapy and medical cannabis has been shown to help sufferers manage symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
  • Severe forms of epilepsy: Besides the high-profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, there are many other rare forms of epilepsy that have also been successfully treated with medical cannabis. These include conditions such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, Dravet syndrome, and Doose syndrome.

This is just a short list of rare conditions that have seen success with medical cannabis treatment in the UK. If you would like to know more about rare diseases, feel free to check out the Orphanet website. This website lists all known rare diseases and provides comprehensive information and resources for those affected.

The legal framework and prescription process for medical cannabis in the UK explained

Now, when discussing the prescription of medical cannabis here in the UK, there are two primary routes currently available. The first is through the National Health Service (NHS), which has extremely strict guidelines on which conditions medical cannabis can be prescribed for. The second option is through a private medical cannabis clinic like Releaf. Private clinics are legally allowed to prescribe medical cannabis for a wider range of conditions, provided there is evidence to support its use.

NHS prescriptions: The narrow path

Currently, NHS prescriptions for medical cannabis are limited to:

  • Two severe forms of epilepsy (Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome)
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • Spasticity caused by Multiple Sclerosis

Apart from these three conditions, all other prescriptions must go through a specialised panel for approval before they can be prescribed, and no such prescriptions have been approved to date. If you do suffer from one of the NHS-qualifying conditions, you can consult with your GP to see if medical cannabis may be an appropriate treatment option.

Private clinic prescriptions: A more accessible option

Private clinics operate under the guidelines set out by the General Medical Council (GMC). Specialists that are registered with the GMC working with private clinics are allowed to prescribe medical cannabis for any health concern, as long as there is evidence to support its use for that specific condition.

The patient must also go through at least two forms of traditional treatment before being considered for a medical cannabis prescription. While not guaranteed, private clinics offer a more accessible option for many patients seeking medical cannabis treatment in the UK.

If you don't meet the NHS criteria or are seeking a complementary treatment option, it may be worth considering private clinics like Releaf. Our team of experts and specialists can help guide you through the process and quickly determine if medical cannabis may be a suitable treatment option for your condition.

FAQs on rare diseases and medical cannabis

Is medical cannabis safe to use for rare diseases?

As with any medication, there are potential risks and side effects associated with the use of medical cannabis. In the UK, you must seek the advice of a specialist before starting any treatment. They will assess your condition and determine if medical cannabis is a safe and appropriate option for you before they provide any prescriptions.

Will medical cannabis cure rare diseases?

Medical cannabis is not a cure for rare diseases. However, it has shown potential in managing symptoms and improving the quality of life for patients suffering from these conditions.

Do I need a prescription for medical cannabis for rare diseases?

Yes, a prescription is required to use medical cannabis in the UK. You can obtain a prescription through the NHS or, if other treatments have been unsuccessful, at private medical clinics such as Releaf.

Rare conditions and medical cannabis: expanding treatment options.

As the access that researchers have to medical cannabis increases, we are likely to see more success stories from patients with rare conditions. Medical cannabis has shown time and again that it can provide relief for a variety of health concerns, including those that were previously considered somewhat untreatable and can do so as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. It should never be seen as a replacement for traditional therapies but, rather, as a complementary option to help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

If you are suffering from a rare condition and are interested in exploring the potential benefits of medical cannabis, feel free to reach out at any time. Releaf understands the importance of medical cannabis in treating various medical conditions. With our tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, you can access the treatment you require without worrying about facing any stigma.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

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