Medical cannabis has been legal in the UK since 2018. But while recent figures show that tens of thousands of patients have now gained access to medical cannabis treatment, there remains a distinct lack of public education on the subject. It is therefore common for parents and other patients to wonder: can medical cannabis be prescribed for children in the UK?
Despite the law changing over four years ago, many people in the UK are still unaware that medical cannabis can be legally prescribed for a wide range of conditions. In fact, according to a survey of 4,000 people conducted by Mamedica in 2022, 84% of respondents didn’t know that cannabis flower could be prescribed in the UK and over half (59%) were unaware that medical cannabis was legal at all. It’s not surprising then that so much uncertainty remains regarding exactly who may be eligible for medical cannabis treatment.
So, can medical cannabis be prescribed to children? Well, the short answer is: yes. As a matter of fact, the experiences of a number of children went a long way toward triggering the legalisation of medical cannabis in the first place.
The cases of children like Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, and the campaigning of their parents, attracted media attention across the UK and further afield. Both boys live with rare forms of childhood epilepsy for which conventional treatments proved ineffective. Their families had both travelled abroad to get medical cannabis products which helped to reduce the frequency and severity of their seizures. Alfie, who was granted a special license for medical cannabis oil in June 2018, when he was just seven years old, became the first patient in the UK to receive a permanent prescription for medical cannabis through the NHS.
What are the guidelines for prescribing cannabis in the UK?
Under current legislation, medical cannabis can be prescribed by a specialist clinician for any condition for which it may be beneficial. However, patients must first have tried at least two conventional therapies without success and the decision to prescribe should be agreed by the multidisciplinary team.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended only prescribing medical cannabis in cases of severe treatment-resistant epilepsy, spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. While this doesn’t technically mean that medical cannabis cannot be prescribed for other conditions, the likelihood of this occurring through the NHS is extremely low. As a result, the vast majority of patients – both adults and children – currently rely on private clinics for their medication.
Prescribing medical cannabis to children in the UK
Cannabis-based medicines can be prescribed to children in the UK; however, the potential effects of cannabis on developing brains may limit their use. There is some evidence that children and young people are more vulnerable to the effects that THC may have on brain development. As such, products containing THC will likely only be considered as a last resort in the treatment of children.
In early 2023, Professor Mike Barnes, a consultant neurologist and one of Europe’s leading experts in medical cannabis, told Medscape News UK that around 100 children were currently using medical cannabis in the UK – the majority for epilepsy. To put that figure into context, it is estimated that around 32,000 people have now been granted a medical cannabis prescription in the UK.
NICE currently recommends the use of Epidyolex – a brand of CBD-based medicine – to adults and children over 2 with Dravet Syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (alongside clobazam), or tuberous sclerosis complex. Again, it is recommended that this product only be considered where seizures are not satisfactorily controlled after trying two or more licensed epilepsy medications.
NICE’s recommendations don’t necessarily mean that patients, including children, with other forms of epilepsy cannot access medical cannabis. They also don’t mean that other medical cannabis products cannot be considered for the treatment of childhood epilepsy. The most appropriate treatment is determined by a specialist clinician on a case-by-case basis.
Can medical cannabis be prescribed to children with other conditions?
Aside from the treatment of Dravet Syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis complex, medical cannabis is not currently recommended as a treatment for paediatric patients with any other conditions. This means that children and young people aged under 18 with other conditions are unlikely to be prescribed medical cannabis products in the UK – particularly through the NHS; however, they may be considered where no other treatment is available.
For more information regarding access to medical cannabis in the UK, check out the leafie guide to getting a medical cannabis prescription.