Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

When it comes to cannabis, PR can be a tool to save lives

By Laura Salvage, Senior Account Manager at The PHA Group

This month marks three years since the first medical cannabis prescription was granted on the NHS to nine year old boy Alfie Dingley.

This decision by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid led to a law change on 1st November 2018, which enabled medicinal cannabis to be legally prescribed in the UK for the first time.

Yet for vulnerable families already suffering with the grief of looking after a seriously ill child, this optimism has since been replaced with utter misery.

To this day, only private access is available to these vulnerable children and only three prescriptions for whole plant cannabis have been issued on the NHS. This is despite Matt Hancock telling parents in a meeting in 2019 that cannabis medicines would be ‘available the normal way’ on the NHS within months – sadly, this was simply untrue.

The result? Desperate parents are being forced to purchase dangerous products off the black market to treat their children with substandard, unsafe, and most importantly illegal products.

There are a number of reasons why medical cannabis, despite being a legal medicine, is so difficult to get on the NHS.

Firstly, the NHS guidelines on medical cannabis, written by drugs advisory body the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are extremely restrictive. Secondly, healthcare professionals do not have enough education to confidently prescribe cannabis, in fact, 99% of doctors have never learnt about cannabis or the endocannabinoid system (the system in our own bodies through which cannabis compounds work).

All of this could be easily changed, but there is little to no effort for access to be improved, neither by the Government, or by pharmaceutical companies. In fact, restrictions continue to tighten and become saddled with bureaucracy. So, despite the UK having a generally positive opinion of medical cannabis, its use still sits in political purgatory and medical no-man’s land.

There are 1.3 million people in the UK using medical cannabis illegally for medical conditions, whether that’s epilepsy, MS, chronic pain or Parkinson’s. On top of this, there are a huge number of people suffering with conditions which would be improved through the use of medical cannabis products. Therefore the impetus to improve the convoluted red tape currently surrounding the industry in the UK is huge.

As with anything, PR can be an incredible tool in raising awareness and influencing change. This is especially true for the cannabis industry, which is particularly difficult to market and advertise, even when concerning products of a medical nature.

Over the past couple of years, I have seen first-hand how PR has been a huge driver in opening up the cannabis industry. Yet looking at the situation the sector is still in – more needs to be done.

It was in fact a lobbying and press campaign which got Alfie Dingley the first prescription back in 2018. The same can be said for the other two NHS prescriptions which have been administered since – both were came off the back of significant publicity campaigns.

At the end of 2020, the lives of 40 children taking medical cannabis for severe epilepsy were thrown into jeopardy, when parents were given just two weeks’ warning that their supply would be terminated due to Brexit. Supplies were previously guaranteed through EU membership, but Dutch law bans the trade of certain medicinal drugs, and the Brexit deal did not include arrangements to safeguard this. This left the families of incredibly unwell children fearing their existing stocks of these life saving medicines would run out within weeks. 

What followed, was an incredible example of the power of PR. Following a hugely successful press campaign, which generated over 80 pieces of coverage, with 30 in national and broadcast titles in just two weeks, the Government acted. The mother of Alfie Dingley, Hannah Deacon, was given a meeting with the Minister for Public Health, Jo Churchill and following this, the Department of Health confirmed supply would be continued until 1st July 2021.

The cannabis industry is expansive and PR firms can bring huge benefits to firms in all strands of the industry, whether that’s by promoting the benefits to CBD products to health and wellbeing, using case studies to show the life changing effects medical products can have on unwell people, or raising awareness of shocking cases to influence policy and instigate real change.

We have come a long way, but much more needs to be done if the industry is to truly open up. When this happens, millions of lives will be improved, if not saved, and PRs must recognise the role they have to play.