The UK government has eased import restrictions on medicinal cannabis, but has admitted it needs to do much more to improve access for patients.

Licensed wholesalers will be able to import larger quantities of cannabis-based products, and hold supplies for future use by patients with prescriptions, according to a government release.

Health minister Matt Hancock said on Monday he was acting after meeting several families campaigning for change, and that he would continue to liaise with officials to determine if other barriers could be removed.

The new measures will be implemented by the Home Office and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) from March 2.

Although the UK is the largest legal grower of medicinal cannabis in the world, according to UN statistics, it imports the majority of cannabis-based medicines from foreign countries. 

Restrictions mean it can take weeks or months for the drugs to reach the patients in the UK. In Canada, an export certificate can take 4 to 8 weeks.

Delays can also occur due to safeguards in place to guard against addiction and the misuse of drugs. This means that patients with prescriptions for unlicensed medicines, such as medicinal cannabis, must have their prescription reviewed every 30 days by specialist doctors. 

The move follows the law change in October 2018 to allow specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use where clinically appropriate in the UK, which has been condemned within the UK’s cannabis sector.

By October 29, less than five patients had successfully obtained medicinal cannabis.

The government said it is working with industry to explore further ways to reduce costs and encourage more research into uninterrupted access to cannabis-based medicinal products where clinically appropriate.

It will continue to engage with medical associations and patients to build evidence, using trials in the UK to accelerate our understanding of how medicinal cannabis can benefit patients. “This is necessary for wider prescribing by NHS clinicians in future,” the health  ministry said in a statement.

In November last year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended 2 cannabis-based medicinal products for patients with multiple sclerosis and hard-to-treat epilepsies.

The Department of Health and Social Care continues to work closely with NHS England-NHS Improvement (NHSE-I) and the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) to establish clinical trials to develop the evidence-base to support further commissioning decisions.

“The changes made today are a tremendous step towards improving the supply of cannabis-based medicinal products by helping to ensure quicker and more reliable access for patients,” said health secretary Hancock. “But we still have a long way to go. We need more research into the quality and safety of these medicines, and to do all we can to cut down the costs and remove barriers so that, when appropriate, patients can access it, including on the NHS.”

The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) welcomed the announcement, after lobbying heavily for the changes.

“Today’s announcement will be warmly welcomed by patients, carers, and clinicians alike,” said Dr Andy Yates, CMC Pharmacy Lead. “It’s crucial as we build the evidence required to realise the potential of cannabis-based medicinal products (CBMPs) that there are no unnecessary impediments to accessing prescriptions.”

In mid-April, CMC will be running a Scientific, Clinical & Regulatory Cannabinoid Conference at the British Medical Association in London. 

The event will bring together cannabinoid researchers from around the world and representatives from NIHR, NICE, and the DHSC.