Hundreds of islanders are turning to UK clinics in their plight for medicinal cannabis after being denied a prescription in Jersey, Express can reveal.
In a move aimed at helping local sufferers of chronic pain and other conditions who felt they had exhausted all other treatment options, politicians voted in November 2018 to allow GPs to prescribe medicinal cannabis.
But, nearly two years later, islanders are still struggling to get their hands on the medicines because doctors feel “duty-bound” by their guidelines not to prescribe it until there has been more research.
Frustrated, thousands of islanders have joined private Facebook support groups where they share hints and tips about how to secure a prescription from a UK clinic – and the demand, as one UK Chief Pharmacist told Express, is growing “exponentially”.
Chris Ashton of LYPHE Group – the group behind The Medical Cannabis Clinics – said that demand from islanders has rocketed from helping a single Jerseyman “navigate the tough regulatory framework” to secure a prescription and licence to import his medicine to more than 100 local patients.
Pictured: Chris Ashton, Chief Pharmacist at LYPHE, which owns The Medical Cannabis Clinics.
"It’s a small island, so everyone talks. Once this person got their meds, they were very complimentary… Then we just started to see more and more people, and it became a case of almost struggling to keep up because it is paperwork-heavy, there’s a lot of compliance we need to do, but we’re well into three figures with the number of patients on Jersey now,” the Chief Pharmacist explained, later adding that the interest "came as somewhat of a shock."
"It's a small island with due respect, so our main attention is on the UK."
The Medical Cannabis Clinics is the fastest growing chain of its kind in the UK. The LYPHE team behind it includes Professor Mike Barnes – who has extensively researched medical cannabis and previously lobbied Jersey GPs and politicians – as its Chief Medical Officer.
The clinics operate from seven locations across England: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle.
But islanders don’t necessarily have to fly out to visit doctors in person.
“With the covid crisis enabling telemedicine, we are able to see the patients remotely and still conform with the regulations.”
Pictured: The rise of 'telemedicine' during the pandemic has allowed islanders can gain prescriptions without having to travel to the UK.
Those regulations, Mr Ashton explains, are “very very tight” and islanders must go through a lengthy process - which can cost several hundred pounds – in order to finally get their hands on the medicines they seek.
All applicants must first fill out an online questionnaire. They are reviewed and triaged before an appointment is scheduled with a UK-regulated specialist.
If, following consultation and examination of their previous medical records, the doctor is satisfied that the individual’s needs would not be met by other medicines, medicinal cannabis can then be prescribed.
As Chief Pharmacist, it is then Mr Ashton’s job to “dispense the medicine and export it to Jersey and into the hands of the patients”.
As cannabis is a controlled drug, this requires an import licence, which requires intense levels of paperwork on both sides of the channel. Usually, the turnaround is two to three weeks, though this can vary “depending on the stock situation”.
In Jersey, import licence paperwork is largely handled by the Government of Jersey's Chief Pharmacist’s Office and Customs.
Pictured: The process of securing a licence is "paperwork-heavy" on both sides of the channel.
A request made under the Freedom of Information Law revealed a sharp rise in the number of licences being granted this year.
Zero were granted between January and March. However, since April, there have been more than 50 – 45 of which came in June alone.
Mr Ashton says that, while he welcomes the Jersey interest, his company – which he emphasises is still in a “start-up phase” – has come under high pressure as a result of the sudden demand.
“My team has grown by three people over the past four weeks. I’ve had to recruit just to cope with the demand – not just in Jersey, but across the UK as well... We’re seeing a big increase in numbers and that tells me we’re doing something right.”
The bulk of queries, Mr Ashton says, have been from islanders hoping to deal with chronic pain, but he adds that medicinal cannabis can be used to help relieve symptoms of an array of other conditions.
“This industry is fantastic. Not only are we breaking new ground, we’re changing people’s lives – helping them with pain that’s uncontrolled or epilepsy that’s uncontrolled. It’s a real passion project for me – we’re genuinely changing people’s lives.
“I get sent videos of children who’ve never laughed before now laughing because of medical cannabis, parents saying, ‘My child’s not had a fit for three months when they’ve had 50 a day for the past six years.’ I love that side of my job.”
Pictured: The States Assembly voted in favour of allowing GPs to prescribe medicinal cannabis in 2018.
That “life-changing” ability is the driving force behind Mr Ashton's keenness to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to access medicinal cannabis.
It’s for that reason he says he began working with the Government of Jersey to remove prescription barriers to islanders following the recent spike in interest.
“I’m Chief Pharmacist, it’s my duty of care to patients so I reached out to the relevant people on the island. It was a two-way discussion – how do we move forward to help these patients?”
Those discussions have so far involved Ministers and the Chief Pharmacist among others, but he declined to name specific individuals.
Noting that politicians have already removed the legal barrier to GPs prescribing medicinal cannabis, Mr Ashton said that it is now in the hands of those who make the policy to create one that will allow doctors to feel more comfortable using that power.
The other conversation revolves around the origins of products that can be prescribed in Jersey.
Here, all medicinal cannabis products have to be made in the EU, but some of the products created in Australia carry an equivalent certification that isn’t officially recognised on the island.
Discussions have so far been positive, Mr Ashton says, but notes that things “won’t change overnight”.
In the meantime, patients are continuing to flock to UK clinics, raising the question of whether Jersey is haemorrhaging money that could otherwise remain on the island at a time when it is needed most.
One patient told Express they felt a “huge opportunity” was being missed, and that they would rather not be spending off-island while the covid crisis is hurting the economy. However, they said they felt they had “no choice”.
Express contacted the government for comment last week, and is still awaiting a reply.
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