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Medical cannabis gets go-ahead for pain relief in French hospitals

The drug has been granted medicine status for the first time for patients suffering ‘insupportable’ pain

Medical cannabis has been prescribed in an experiment to over 2,500 patients by vaping the flowers or ingesting extracted oil Pic: Flapas / Shutterstock

The general authorisation of medical cannabis has moved a step closer with the French government granting it temporary status for five years – and scope for this to be renewed indefinitely.

The price, prescription criteria and reimbursement rate are still to be defined. 

In the meantime, patients who are already using medical cannabis as part of an experiment will be allowed to continue.

Read more: Medical cannabis trials in France show promise

‘Ample proof it works for neuropathic pain’

Under the new proposals, products will be authorised on a case-by-case basis and will remain restricted to a last-resort treatment, prescribed only in hospitals.

The decision follows months of uncertainty and brings cannabis into France’s general medical framework for the first time. 

Frantz Deschamps, president of  Santé-France Cannabis, said: “This is a major advance for patients at a therapeutic impasse.

“There is ample proof that it works, particularly for neuropathic pain such as that endured by people with infections, including shingles, HIV/AIDS, MS, diabetes, stroke, trauma, cancer and treatments such as radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy, as well as complex regional pain syndromes.” 

Medical cannabis is different to CBD oil

He is not referring to CBD oil, which is now widely available in France: “That is not a registered medication, the production of it is not regulated, so each brand has different ingredients,” he said.

Medical cannabis has been prescribed to a control group of more than 2,500 patients since 2021. They receive it either by vaping the flowers or ingesting extracted oil.

Unlike CBD oil, medical cannabis usually retains at least some THC, the ingredient that makes users feel high. 

Read more: French court definitively allows sale of CBD flowers and products

Testing how to prescribe and distribute medical cannabis

“Because the efficacy is already proven, we have been testing the practical possibilities of prescribing and distributing medical cannabis in France,” said Mr Deschamps.

“After three months of using cannabis under medical supervision, 70% of patients with ‘insupportable pain’ reported improvements.

“It does not cure anything, of course. But managing pain improves quality of life enormously. It allows people to return to work, social and domestic activities, for example.”

He stressed there are no unexpected adverse effects: “Unlike morphine-based drugs, no addictions have been reported. There can be mild temporary side-effects, such as sleepiness and diarrhoea, but no severe ones.”

This is a massive advantage, he noted, because so many patients under treatment for chronic pain, or in palliative care, end up taking a whole cascade of drugs, each one prescribed to alleviate the side-effects of the previous one.

Medical cannabis legal in almost all other EU states

However, the authorisation of medical cannabis in France is proving a long, slow process.

“It is a completely new medication in France, so it is normal that it is taking time to set up the regulatory framework,” said Mr Deschamps.

In response to arguments that the state should not be paying for people to get high, he said: “Patients suffering from untreatable pain, or who are end-of-life, need effective treatment to improve their quality of life, even if medications are classed as narcotics.

“With cannabis-based medicines, these patients can find relief from their debilitating symptoms without risking serious side-effects.”

He also stressed the difference from recreational cannabis use. 

“When it is used medically, we need to know exactly how it was produced and what is in it so as to prescribe the correct dosage.

“And, of course, it is used under medical supervision.

“We are lobbying for medical cannabis to be treated like morphine: to be prescribed for home use, available in pharmacies and reimbursed so it is accessible to everyone, and we hope that can happen in 2024.”

Medical cannabis is legal in almost all other EU states. 

This is also the case in the UK, although it is effectively only available to those with private healthcare.

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