In Depth

Medical cannabis trial to target 20,000 UK patients

Project Twenty21 will test seven medical conditions including chronic pain

Up to 20,000 patients are to be given medicinal cannabis in the first large-scale clinical trial of the drug.

Project Twenty21, which will measure the drug’s impact on seven medical conditions, will subsidise cannabis for thousands of patients by the end of 2021, and is backed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The trial is aiming to “create the largest body of evidence on medical cannabis in Europe”, according to The Guardian, with the hope that it will convince policymakers that “the drug should be made as widely available, and affordable, as other approved prescription medications”.

It will study the drug’s effects on patients who have either chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety disorder or who have had a history of substance misuse. Across the UK, 28 million people are estimated to suffer from chronic pain.

What is the law on medicinal cannabis in the UK?

Although medical cannabis was legalised in the UK a year ago, it remains unobtainable for many patients, according to campaigners.

Since legalisation, NHS doctors have rarely prescribed the drug because of “a lack of evidence about its efficacy”, according to the Guardian.

“There are also fears it is being over-hyped by a nascent industry focused on maximising profit,” the newspaper adds.

Sky News reports that medical authorities have said that there is only a “paucity of evidence” that medicinal cannabis works.

This means that the only option for patients is to “source cannabis illegally, and risk prosecution, or pay for a private prescription of the drug”, Sky News says.

The BBC reports that one family from Cardiff pays around £4,000 a month for medicinal cannabis, as it is not available to them on the NHS. The drug is used to treat their 17-year-old son who has a rare form of epilepsy.

What is the reaction to the trial?

Sky News reports that while the trial is the largest of its kind, it will have to overcome “medical scepticism”, after the clinical watchdog NICE said that cannabis should not be prescribed for a range of conditions, including chronic pain.

However, Professor David Nutt of the organisation Drug Science, the charity running the trial, said that cannabis can be “life-saving” in certain cases, for example severe childhood epilepsy.

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Nutt said: “I believe cannabis is going to be the most important innovation in medicine for the rest of my life.

“There are children who have died in this country in the last couple of years because they haven’t had access to cannabis. It’s outrageous, it’s unnecessary and we want to rectify it.”

Nutt is a former government adviser and has worked on the misuse of drugs in the Ministry of Defence, Department of Health and the Home Office. 

He was dismissed from his post as a government adviser in 2009, after the publication of a pamphlet that contained elements of a lecture he had given on the relative harm caused by illicit drugs.

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