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More than one in ten Brits need painkillers every day

Research shared exclusively with Spotlight shows the extent of the UK’s dependency on pain medication.

By Zoë Grünewald

More than one in ten Britons rely on painkillers to get through the day, according to research by Mamedica, a private UK-based medicinal cannabis clinic, shared exclusively with New Statesman Spotlight.

The data, which will be published on Monday (9 October), highlights the UK’s escalating dependence on painkillers. In Mamedica’s survey of 2,070 participants, 13 per cent said that they relied on painkillers every day; 16 per cent said they habitually consumed painkillers every four hours whenever they had an ache or pain; and 12 per cent reported that they no longer felt the effects of painkillers when adhering to the recommended dosage.

In 2022 there were 57 million painkiller prescriptions in the UK, equivalent to one prescription every 108 minutes, according to the report. This costs the NHS £500m a year.

It is estimated that one in four Britons live with chronic pain, at a significant cost to the UK economy. Many have reduced access to treatment and relief as a result of NHS services being overstretched and waiting lists being at record highs.

[See also: The BMI scale is a cheap and accessible starting point to prevent disease]

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The Mamedica research also highlights an increasing demand for holistic methods over prescribed medicine, with 17 per cent of individuals expressing a preference for alternative pain treatment. Nearly one in ten respondents – 9 per cent – with chronic pain said they self-medicated with cannabis via the “grey market” (unauthorised or unofficial supply chains), and that it had improved their pain symptoms.

Since 2018 doctors have been legally able to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use for conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and relief from symptoms associated with chemotherapy. However, implementation across the NHS has been slow and health workers and campaigners have pointed out problems with the availability of medicinal cannabis on the NHS compared with the private sector.

“Part of the reason why medicinal cannabis has been essentially ignored by the medical profession is that the government… washed its hands of the issue after changing the law,” wrote Dr Kojo Koram, an academic at the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London, in February 2023, “doing little to improve the understanding of the medication among doctors or put in place the structures that would actually facilitate regular access to patients.”

Jon Robson, CEO of Mamedica said it was “saddening” that there have been fewer than five prescriptions for medical cannabis via the NHS since it 2018. “With the UK finding itself in a painkiller epidemic, and almost one in five saying they would rather treat their symptoms with alternative medicine, it’s vital that policymakers review current guidelines around prescribing medical cannabis,” he said.

A number of MPs have been campaigning to make medicinal cannabis more accessible in the UK. Earlier this year David Mundell, a Conservative MP, called on the government to have a “much more coordinated and focused approach to supporting this industry”. Reacting to today’s data, Mundell said: “This latest research confirms that legalisation of medically prescribed cannabis has not led to widespread access. Legal hurdles and clinical bottlenecks remain a very real barrier to people trying to manage their chronic pain effectively.”

[See also: David Nutt: “Psychedelics are the biggest breakthrough in mental health for 50 years”]

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