Cannabis-based medicines to treat epilepsy and multiple sclerosis : Recommendations should be adopted in Northern Ireland - Mark H Durkan

SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan
SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan

Mark H. Durkan, SDLP health spokesperson, is urging the Department of Health to back NICE recommendations on two cannabis-based medicines used to treat epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

He made the call after the medicines Epidyolex and Sativex were approved for use by the NHS in England. Epidyolex has been approved for two types of epilepsy, and the spray Sativex has been recommended for muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis.

Mr Durkan welcomed the approval and called it welcome news for many campaigners and people across England who suffer from debilitating conditions. He said the announcement “provides hope for those living with chronic conditions in the North, that a similar implementation can be secured here”.

Prior to the collapse of the Assembly, he had met with the previous health minister to discuss the importance of legislating on medicinal cannabis. He said while there has been progress, with the Department announcing that cannabis-based medicinal products could be prescribed by doctors without a license, “it does not go far enough”.

Further, he said, “this vitally important issue, like many others, has been stalled” in the absence of an Executive.

“It is imperative that the Department now take on the baton and ensure that patients here can access the same treatments available across the water,” the Foyle MLA said. He has written to Health Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly to outline the Department’s position and ascertain whether access to these drugs can be secured for the North.

“There must be a compassionate response to those with chronic illnesses. By securing this life-changing treatment we can improve the lives of many people here living with debilitating illnesses,” he said. “People cannot continue to wait in pain.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said they welcomed publication of final NICE guidance on the prescribing of cannabis-based medicinal products, which they said will provide additional support to specialist clinicians who may wish to prescribe them. They said the Department’s formal link with NICE means guidance is locally reviewed for applicability to the North and where appropriate endorsed for implementation in Health and Social Care.

That link ensures the North has access to “up-to-date, independent, professional, evidence-based guidance on the value of health care interventions, and this new guidance for clinicians will be reviewed in line with these established processes,” they said.

“Decisions to prescribe unlicensed cannabis-based medicinal products are rightly made by specialist clinicians in conjunction with patients and their families, taking into account the evidence, the potential risks and benefits of treatment, and individual circumstances,” the spokesperson said. “Unfortunately there is currently a lack of evidence to support the routine prescribing of these products in the same way as other medicines and NICE has made specific recommendations which will support further research in this area.”