In Brighton, a beach town in the south of England where Carly Jayne Barton lives, an average year’s pay—pre-Brexit, for a good job—runs between £25,000 to £30,000.
This means that if the 32-year-old Barton—who has chronic pain stemming from fibromyalgia, a serious health condition that qualified her to become the first UK resident with a government-recognized prescription for medical marijuana—wants to exercise her newfound right to legally use cannabis, she’d need to spend between 30% and 40% of the average breadwinner’s wages to do it.
Carly Barton, medical cannabis patient
To much fanfare—and following a series of high-profile, ham-fisted embarrassments, the last straw being the confiscation of an epileptic boy’s non-intoxicating cannabis oil at Heathrow Airport in London—officials with the UK’s Home Office announced that beginning Nov. 1, British drug laws would be relaxed so that physicians would be allowed to write their patients prescriptions to use marijuana.
More than a month later, only two British subjects—Barton and Jorja Emerson, a two year old with epilepsy so severe she suffers up to 30 seizures a day—are known to have received prescriptions.
Due to restrictions in the government guidelines issued to physicians, both patients were forced to seek consultations outside the National Health Service, the country’s public healthcare system. In Barton’s case, a private appointment with a pain specialist in Manchester cost her $2,500. And due to byzantine bureaucratic delays with import authorities, neither patient has received a scrap of medicine.
Which is good for Barton’s finances, if not her physical well-being. Her prescription is for two grams of cannabis a day. Purchased directly from Bedrocan, a licensed cannabis supplier based in the Netherlands, a gram each of Jack Herer and a nighttime indica cost about 6 euros apiece, she told Leafly News on Saturday.
That’s not far off what patients in many established US states pay for similar products. But whenimport fees and the cost of special import licenses are calculated, the price of a 12-month supply jumps to a princely £10,000—quite possibly the most expensive pot on the planet.
Bureaucratic Stumbling Blocks
Barton’s situation makes clear the convoluted state of drug-policy reform in the United Kingdom today. “I was quite adamant the only reason I agreed to do this and stump up the money was that somebody needed to go down this route and highlight how unfair the system was,” she told Leafly in a recent interview.
Despite recent moves in favor of allowing medical cannabis, British people suffering from chronic pain, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and other maladies for which cannabis is known to bring a measure of relief still have scant access to cannabis aside from the illegal market. When Barton pulled from a vaporizer during a recent interview with Sky News, it wasn’t from a legal supply—it was from a personal stash.
Because they require expensive private medical care, and because they result in exorbitantly priced cannabis that nobody can actually access anyway, the guidelines released by the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC), Barton said, are “null and void and pointless, not worth the paper they’re written on.”
“It’s just not working for anyone involved,” she said.
To secure a prescription in the United Kingdom, a patient would have to do as Barton did: schedule an appointment with their NHS physician, who would in turn refuse to discuss cannabis with them. According to the United Patients Alliance, the medical-cannabis advocacy group of which Barton is a member, posters advising patients to not bother discussing marijuana with their NHS doctors have “gone up in waiting rooms all over the country.”
If the physician did dare to mention cannabis, they would then have to refer to the same DHSC guidelines, in which the Royal College of Physicians declares that there is “no robust evidence” that cannabis is useful in treating chronic pain—a declaration that directly contradicts the conclusion drawn by the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In all cases, the guidelines advise, marijuana is not an appropriate “first-line treatment” and should be explored only after traditional pharmaceutical treatments have been exhausted.
According to the NHS, the only British patients likely to receive prescriptions are people with severe epilepsy or cancer patients with chemotherapy-induced nausea. Compare that to the United States, where even many conservative states, such as Utah, accept autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and multiple sclerosis as qualifying conditions.
In other words, if British authorities sought to deliberately design a system so unworkable that it would be bound to fail, they’d have been hard pressed to come up with something better than this. “It was almost like they knew they were going to make the decision not to allow it,” Barton said.
Either by spending a colossal sum of cash on imported cannabis or by using illegal marijuana to keep her pain in check, Barton hopes she can serve as a sort of one-person science experiment, demonstrating that cannabis is an effective pain-management tool. She feels that could convince an NHS physician to grant her an appointment and eventually a state-funded prescription.
If that happens, there’s a chance that when the government releases permanent guidelines dictating how cannabis can be prescribed—slated to happen in October 2019—they’ll be more workable for patients than the current rules.
Until then, the best hope for Barton and other patients may be law enforcement. One of the only instances in which the British system resembles the federalist jumble in the United States is with regards to the police. Local police officials enjoy broad powers to set priorities for enforcement, and in several communities—most prominently in the northern city of Durham—police commissioners have said they plan to tell officers to de-prioritize cannabis possession and focus on other offenses.
“We think if we can get a few towns on board with that kind of attitude, the rest of them will drop it,” Barton said. “The amount of time they waste prosecuting those offenses, it can only benefit them and their budgets if they stop chasing patients around for it.”
In the meantime, “We are way down the line in the UK,” she said. “We’re light-years behind [the United States], Canada, Israel, and everyone else.”