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Illicit Cannabis Use for Medical Conditions Remains High in UK Despite Legalisation of Medical Cannabis

Published: 28/06/2024

On the 1st of November 2018, medical cannabis was rescheduled and therefore legal to prescribe to UK patients. Despite this significant step, medical cannabis is not accessible for all individuals. At the end of 2022 – approximately four years after the law change – it was estimated that 32,000 patients had been prescribed medical cannabis. In stark contrast, reports from before the rescheduling of medical cannabis indicate that more than 1.4 million adults in the UK self-medicate with illicit cannabis products.

As part of a collaboration with scientists at Imperial College London and the University of the West of Scotland, researchers from Curaleaf Clinic aimed to find out how many people used illicit cannabis to self-treat health problems since the law change.

Design and Methods of the Study

A was administered to over 10,000 adults in the UK between the 22nd and 29th of September 2022 via YouGov®.

Participants were selected to be representative of the UK adult population. They were asked to complete a series of questions regarding diagnosed health conditions and the use of illicit cannabis to manage said conditions.

Results of the Study

From 10,965 respondents, 5,700 reported experiencing any diagnosed health conditions. The number of UK adults estimated to be affected by a diagnosed health condition was therefore estimated as 27.7 million. The most common specifically identified conditions were anxiety (14.5%) and chronic pain (7.5%).

Illicit cannabis use for medical reasons

Of the 5,700 participants who reported having one or more diagnosed health conditions, 364 (6.4%) reported using illicit cannabis for their condition. The population of UK adults who use illicit cannabis to manage health conditions was therefore estimated as 1.8 million.

Over 1 in 3 multiple sclerosis patients reported using illicit cannabis for a medical condition. Over 775,000 UK adults with anxiety were estimated to use illicit cannabis to self-manage the condition.

Why do people use illicit cannabis?

The most common reason given for using cannabis illicitly was that patients presumed legal access to medical cannabis was very difficult (40.8%). Other responses included that they presumed legal medical cannabis products were expensive (28.9%), they wanted to treat their condition quickly (28.4%), or that they were unaware it was legal (24.2%).
Discussing medical cannabis with a doctor

When asked about discussions with GPs or specialist doctors about medical cannabis, 48.1% of participants said they had never discussed it.

Of participants who had discussed medical cannabis with their physician, 11.9% said their doctor knew nothing about it, 9.7% said they are exploring the option further or have explored it, 5.2% decided against it in collaboration with their doctor, and 8.4% were advised against medical cannabis by their doctor.


This study estimates that 1.8 million adults in the UK are self-treating diagnosed health conditions with illicit cannabis products. The conditions with the strongest association for illicit cannabis use were multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

However, the authors of the present study note that, when presented with 95% confidence intervals the lower bound of the figure derived in the present study is 1.1 million. This may therefore reflect that there has been no change, since the previous estimate was 1.4 million in 2019. Changes may also be due to the present study offering additional options relating to diagnosed medical conditions (Other mental health condition; Other physical condition, and Other).

It is important to note that illicit cannabis may put individuals at increased risk of harm. This includes exposure to potentially harmful bacteria, mould, heavy metals and pesticides. In comparison to medical cannabis, illicit cannabis does not have to meet any criteria to ensure it meets regulatory standards set by regulators of medicines. In addition to health harms, the use of illicit cannabis can lead to societal issues through engaging in illegal activity and the exploitation of vulnerable people by gangs.

The study authors call for further action to be taken to improve access to medical cannabis as a harm-reduction measure among individuals who are currently using illicit cannabis for health reasons. Whilst further research is required to determine the true role medical cannabis may have in various conditions, there are clear benefits to helping people transition away from illicit cannabis.

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