A South Ayrshire councillor has spoken about the positive impact medically-prescribed Cannabis has had in her life as she hopes to break the stigma and address financial costs surrounding the drug.
Laura Brennan-Whitefield, a councillor for Ayr north ward, believes Cannabis should be prescribed more widely via the NHS to ensure people get the “best chance” in improving their health and well-being.
In 2018, the law was changed to allow doctors to prescribe Cannabis, however, it can only be prescribed by a specialist hospital doctor with a license to do so.
The SNP councillor, who has had Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for 12 years, said she made the decision to use Cannabis to treat her pain as she did not want to go down a route of more opiates which are chronically addictive and she was also unsure if opiates would address her pain.
Ms Brennan-Whitefield, first elected in 2017, went through a form of chemotherapy to treat her MS in 2017 and 2018, yet, she only noticed “significant benefits” to her neuropathic pains when she started vaping medically-prescribed Cannabis last year.
The councillor went to the Sapphire Clinic, based in Stirling, after being referred to the private healthcare facility by her GP.
Scotland‘s first medical cannabis clinic, the facility began prescribing to patients suffering from chronic pain conditions in 2021.
The private clinic provides unlicensed Cannabis-based medicines for people with conditions that do not meet the criteria for NHS-prescribed cannabis products.
A long-term campaigner for Cannabis being used for medicinal purposes, Ms Brennan-Whitefield was prescribed “dried flower” – the plant – which she said was “very effective” and made “a clear difference” to her overall well-being.
“I’m in far less pain, I have far less spasms and I have a far better quality of life,” the councillor said, “It takes those burning pains and turns them right down. It has honestly changed my life.
“It doesn’t work for everyone with multiple sclerosis but if it works for some it generally works very well.”
Cannabis can help people through palliative care as well as create pain relief for other conditions including arthritis and epilepsy.
Despite the benefits, Ms Brennan-Whitefield is all too aware she was prescribed the drug via a private clinic and she knows many people cannot afford this.
“I pay something around £200 a month for this prescription and while I cannot criticise the treatment I’ve had, I just feel like that prices people out.
“It comes at a substantial cost and it’s not fair. I want to make people aware it should be available to those who need it.”
A huge hurdle the councillor and many other people who take cannabis for medicinal reasons have had to overcome is the taboo the drug is entrenched in.
“There is still a massive stigma around it,” said the SNP councillor, ”There’s a lot of people who have private cannabis prescriptions but there’s not a lot who have publicly said they do.
“It’s seen as a gateway to other hardcore drugs and the typical ‘hippie’ stereotype but that is not the case at all.”
Cannabis is a Class B controlled drug under Part II, Schedule 2, of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Under Schedule 2, it is alongside medication such as Ketamine and Fentanyl.
Only three Cannabis products have been licensed by the UK-wide Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
These are Sativex, which is used to treat “severe spasticity” in MS patients, Nabilone for chemotherapy-induced nausea and Epidyolex for rare forms of childhood epilepsy.
Only Epidyolex can be prescribed by the NHS in Scotland.
The alternative is to go to the black market. We are talking about the most vulnerable people having to do this or getting their carers to do that,” said the councillor, “That comes with its own host of dangers including prosecution and you don’t know what you are getting.”
Ms Brennan-Whitefield has seen cross-party support for her calls to make cannabis more accessible in a medicinal capacity via the NHS.
Duncan Townson, a Scottish Labour Councillor in South Ayrshire, is supportive of her calls.
The councillor for Kyle ward said: “My dad had lung cancer and he died from that but when he was diagnosed, it was too late for him to get chemotherapy and he wasn’t able to get the pain relief medical Cannabis could have given him as he couldn’t afford to get the private prescription.
“If it helps the patient, cannabis should be prescribed.”
Mr Townson said the Scottish Government should commission studies on the drug to ensure it’s “positive impact” on a medical basis is properly considered.
Bob Pollock, an ex-police officer and Conservative councillor, says he has seen a “dramatic improvement” in his fellow councillor’s well-being and backs her calls for cannabis to be made more accessible on a medical basis if doctors consider it appropriate.
The councillor for Troon Ward said: “I’m totally against Cannabis on a recreational basis but I fully support its use in a correct, medical setting where there is a clear benefit from it.
“I find it bizarre we are happy to prescribe high-level opiates to people but we’re not prepared to prescribe them with medical cannabis.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of opiate deaths during my time in the police but I’ve never once seen someone die directly from taking Cannabis.”
Ms Brennan-Whitefield believes the NHS should bring in a protocol to prescribe the drug. She added it would be “worthwhile” to raise the issue in Holyrood.
The regulation, licensing and supply of medicines remain reserved to the UK Government, however, Mr Townson said beginning conversations in Scotland will attract more attention UK-wide.
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf recently met with UK Ministers to discuss Scottish participation in UK-based clinical trials to help build the “evidence base” for Cannabis Based Products for Medicinal Use. A Scottish Government spokesperson said concerns around safety, efficacy and the lack of “robust evidence” on the drug remain.