While ongoing reforms have helped to make cannabis increasingly accessible to many people around the world, the ongoing prohibition of recreational cannabis continues to stigmatise consumers who access the drug from illicit sources. This stigmatisation can leave many consumers hesitant to discuss their cannabis use with healthcare professionals – whether they are using the drug for medicinal or recreational purposes. But should we be telling our doctor about our cannabis consumption?
In the UK, medical cannabis was legalised in 2018 when the drug was moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. While this decision initially prompted celebration among patients and anticipation of further reforms among casual users, five years on, there remains a persistent stigma on cannabis use. This stigma is often enough to prevent cannabis consumers from discussing their cannabis use with GPs and other healthcare professionals – even when prompted to do so.
The reasons for this hesitancy may be varied and, in some cases justified, however, being honest about drug use – including cannabis consumption – can be important to ensure the delivery of safe and appropriate care. So, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why ensuring patients feel comfortable to discuss cannabis use with their doctor is so important.
Cannabis can interact with other drugs
While there is an abundance of evidence to support the relative safety of cannabis when compared with other drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, it is important to be aware of its potential interactions with other drugs and medicines. This can include prescription drugs that may be provided by your GP or other doctors.
For example, cannabinoids such as CBD and THC have been found to interact with a number of common prescription drugs, including anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and painkillers. These interactions can result in a number of effects. In some cases, combining cannabis with other drugs can increase the risk of undesirable and often dangerous side effects. In other instances, cannabis has been seen to inhibit the breakdown of prescription medicines, making them less effective.
Disclosing cannabis use can help your doctor identify the safest and most suitable products should you require treatment for any condition or ailment.
Anything you share with your doctor is confidential
Other cannabis consumers may worry about the legal implications of disclosing illegal cannabis use with their doctor. After all, cannabis products – when not obtained with a prescription – are still illegal in the UK, even when they are used for medicinal purposes. However, patients should be reassured by their doctor’s obligation to uphold patient-doctor confidentiality.
It is unlawful for healthcare professionals to report a patient’s drug use to the authorities unless there is an overriding public interest – usually concern that they will seriously harm themselves or others. Consumers therefore shouldn’t be worried about facing legal action when disclosing their cannabis use to their doctor. This confidentiality is an important consideration for many patients, whether they are self-medicating with cannabis or seeking treatment for addiction. But that isn’t to say that all doctors will be understanding of your cannabis use, which brings us to our next point.
Many doctors still lack knowledge about cannabis
Despite being legal for almost five years, many doctors lack experience and knowledge of the risks and benefits of cannabis use. Unfortunately, this can lead to some doctors misinterpreting their patient’s medicinal cannabis use and not taking the issue seriously. This largely comes down to a lack of education and training around cannabis within the medical community – an issue that was highlighted in a 2021 survey of 1,000 GPs in the UK.
The survey, conducted by the Primary Care Cannabis Network (PCCN) revealed that less than one-quarter of GPs currently felt that they were not knowledgeable enough about cannabis to prescribe and oversee medical cannabis treatment. This lack of education can contribute to an environment in which both doctors and patients feel uncomfortable discussing cannabis use – particularly when the drug is being used medicinally. Addressing this issue is crucial to ensuring patients, alongside their doctors, feel empowered to make the best decisions regarding their treatment and overall health.
How to talk to your doctor about self-medicating with cannabis
Broaching the topic of cannabis use can understandably be unnerving, particularly when your doctor has no experience in medical cannabis treatment. The unfortunate truth is that you may even know more about medical cannabis than your doctor. While this may be frustrating, informing your doctor of your experience of using cannabis medicinally can help them gain a clearer view of your condition and treatment.
If you are using cannabis for medicinal reasons, it can be helpful to explain your decision. For example, you may have tried various other treatments that have been unsuccessful or have had unpleasant side effects, or you may be looking to reduce your reliance on opioid painkillers – a decision that many doctors would support. Whatever your reasons for self-medicating with cannabis, the most important thing is to be confident, clear, and calm when discussing these with your doctor.
How to access a medical cannabis prescription
Medical cannabis treatment can now be considered for a wide range of conditions, including (but not limited to) chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. While such treatment can be provided through the NHS, the vast majority of medical cannabis patients access their prescription through private clinics
If you are interested in receiving medical cannabis treatment via the NHS or a private clinic, involving your GP in the treatment decision can be helpful. For example, your GP is best placed to provide you with the necessary information regarding your full medical history, including current and previous medical conditions, medications, and family history. This information should be passed on to your treating specialist to ensure medical cannabis is prescribed safely.
For more information on how to access a medical cannabis prescription in the UK, take a look at the leafie guide.