MS patients ‘denied’ approved cannabis treatment – charity

Thousands of people are being “denied” a cannabis-based treatment which can help improve symptoms of spasms, a charity has said.

Some patients with multiple sclerosis – which affects the brain and spinal cord and causes a wide array of symptoms – should be able to get a cannabis-based spray to alleviate pain and discomfort caused by spasms.

But despite the spray, known as Sativex, being given the green light for NHS use in England more than two years ago, many patients are still having difficulty accessing it, the MS Society said.

The charity said MS is the only condition which has a licenced, cannabis-derived treatment for spasticity, but people with MS have been struggling to access the treatment on the NHS, despite it being approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

“Eligible people with MS are being denied the option to try it,” the authors wrote.

“Many are finding that despite the treatment being approved, they are being denied access in their area.”

The charity’s research found that just 49 out of 106 clinical commissioning groups in England are routinely offering treatment.

It estimated that around 4,800 people would be eligible to try the treatment, but just 630 are being offered it.

“This means that thousands of people with MS could be missing out on a treatment that’s safe, effective and could greatly improve their quality of life,” the authors said.

Muscle spasms or stiffness, known as spasticity, affects around 80% of people with MS.

The charity said some people are having to pay for the treatment privately, or are buying cannabis illegally to self-treat symptoms.

Chris and Anne Todd, a married couple from Hull, both live with relapsing MS.

chris and anne
Chris and Anne Todd (Handout/MS Society/PA)

Mr Todd was diagnosed in 1999 and has severe spasticity, in addition to other symptoms such as mobility issues and fatigue.

“We’ve not had a proper night’s sleep in years,” he said.

“The best I get is to pass out with exhaustion. I can’t function and rely on other people to help with things like cooking and showering.

“I’ve tried every medication to help my spasms, but they’ve either not worked, or given me bad side effects like vomiting.

“It is so frustrating that there is a treatment which could completely change our lives, but we can’t get it.

“How much longer are we going to have to wait? Sativex was approved two years ago and yet nothing has changed. I can’t go on like this.”

Mrs Todd, who was diagnosed in 2005, added: “I know that Sativex is available and is changing people’s lives. It feels like someone somewhere has something against me and won’t let me try this treatment that could change my life.”

The MS Society is calling on clinical commissioning groups across England to end the “postcode lottery” of care and make Sativex available for everyone who meets the NHS criteria.

Fredi Cavander-Attwood, policy manager at the MS Society, said: “It is completely unacceptable that two years after receiving Nice approval, Sativex is only available in 49 out of 106 health areas in England.

“MS can be relentless, painful and disabling, and getting the treatment you need shouldn’t be a game of chance. Sativex doesn’t work for everyone with MS, but when it does work, the impact can be life changing.

“Right now, some people with MS are having to choose between living with excruciating spasms or paying as much as £500 a month for a private Sativex prescription – it costs the NHS under £300 to provide the same dose. Some are even being forced to break the law by buying cannabis illegally.

“This cruel postcode lottery must end, and health bodies across England need to ensure that everyone who meets the criteria is able to access Sativex.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “While these are ultimately decisions for local health groups, services should refer to Nice guidance and offer patients Sativex if clinically appropriate, alongside several other treatments that are already available to those with multiple sclerosis on the NHS.”