1. ITV Report

Cannabis: A viable medicine?

A multiple sclerosis patient has hit out at a "postcode lottery" in treatments for the condition as she battles to get funding for the UK's first licensed cannabis-based medication.

Full report by Charlotte Cross here:

Yvette Hodges, aged 39, has been recommended for Sativex by her neurologist as an add-on treatment to reduce the pain caused by severe spasticity in her legs, which makes walking almost impossible.

She has to use crutches around the house, and a wheelchair when outside, as she is in danger of falling.

Yvette has to use crutches around the house, and a wheelchair when outside, as she is in danger of falling. Credit: ITV News Central

She is currently on high levels of oral morphine to try to tackle the pain, but is keen to wean herself off the highly addictive medication as soon as possible - particularly if there is an alternative available.

But the Worcestershire Area Prescribing Committee, responsible for commissioning drugs, has refused her the treatment, saying they need more evidence that it's value for money.

Just some of the medication she has been given Credit: ITV News Central

My quality of life changes day to day. But the pain that I suffer is constantly there, 24 hours a day.

My neurologist - he believed [Sativex] might help as it's a drug which tackles spasm pain.

I am aware that there are parts of the country that are able to get it, and it has helped quite a few people.

It shouldn't be about post code - it's wrong, it's completely wrong. How can you pinpoint who should get treatment based just on where they live?

It's not right at all, and it frustrates me to think that's what it's about.

– Yvette Hodges

Sativex is an oral spray, and is the UK's first licensed cannabis-based medication.

Studies have found around 48 per cent of people who use it show good to significant improvement (Source: MS Society) - but each local NHS trust can currently decide for themselves whether to provide it or not.

And with anecdotal evidence suggesting high levels of people with MS turn to illegal cannabis to help tackle the pain, campaigners are now calling on the health service to make it more widely available.

Sativex is the UK's first licensed cannabis-based medication Credit: GWPharma

Cannabis itself has been used as a medicinal treatment for hundreds of years, but is still illegal in the UK in its raw form.

Yvette said she herself is aware of a number of people who self-medicate with cannabis, through various support groups and networks online.

I am aware that people would turn to cannabis to relieve their pain - my theory on that is, if Sativex was available, I don't think people would do that.

I think the people who are turning to that is because they can't get the drug that they need.

– Yvette Hodges
Sativex is an oral spray based on cannabis Credit: GWPharma

It's a cause which has won the support of the MS Society, which launched its Treat Me Right campaign earlier this year to call on health bosses to review prescribing levels for people diagnosed with MS.

Nick Rijke, director of policy and research for the charity, urged the government to act on its promises and help make the drug more widely available.

For years, the government has said 'we will prosecute people who use cannabis medicinally, people should wait for the pharmaceutical product to be available and that will then be prescribed'.

Well, the product is now available, and it's not being prescribed, so that leaves people between a rock and a hard place.

People should have access to it so they're not forced to look for what is still an illegal drug.

– Nick Rijke, MS Society

NHS Redditch and Bromsgrove Clinical Commissioning Group spokesman Gary Hammersley said the Worcestershire Area Prescribing Committee had considered the evidence relating to Sativex for use of the treatment and the cost-effectiveness for patients.

On consideration, the Area Prescribing Committee did not consider it suitable for NHS funding due to limitations in clinical trial data and a lack of evidence of value for money for use of NHS funds.

Therefore Sativex is not recommended for use within Worcestershire Clinical Commissioning Groups.

If new evidence becomes available, local clinicians may make a resubmission for consideration to the Worcestershire Area Prescribing Committee citing details of the new information available.

– Gary Hammersley, NHS Redditch and Bromsgrove Clinical Commissioning Group
The official cannabis growing facility used by GWPharma Credit: GWPharma

MS is not the only condition for which cannabis-derived medication is believed to have a positive effect, and Cancer Research UK is among those charities which have begun to fund extensive research into how it could be used to treat various types of cancer.

Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK’s science communications manager, said:

We know that cannabinoids – the active chemicals found in cannabis – can have a range of different effects on cancer cells grown in the lab and animal tumours.

But at the moment there isn’t good evidence from clinical trials to prove that they can safely and effectively treat cancer in patients.

Despite this, we are aware that some cancer patients do choose to treat themselves with cannabis extracts.

These stories can help researchers build a picture of whether these treatments are helping or not, although this is weak evidence compared to properly-run clinical trials.

Cancer Research UK is supporting clinical trials for treating cancer with cannabis extract and a synthetic cannabinoid through our national network of Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres, in order to gather solid data on how best these drugs can be used to benefit people with cancer.

– Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK
The MS Society has launched a campaign to try to improve the availability of drugs like Sativex Credit: ITV News Central

What is MS?

  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition in which the coating around nerve fibres, called myelin, is damaged when the body's immune system begins attacking it
  • It affects around 100,000 people in the UK
  • Around three times as many women have MS as men
  • Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, but it can affect older and younger people too
  • The cause is not known and there is no known cure

Symptoms commonly include:

  • Vision problems
  • Balance problems and dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Bladder problems
  • Stiffness
  • Spasms and spasticity