- By Alan Haslam
- BBC News NI
At one high street café in County Antrim, there’s a high chance you will find someone openly using cannabis alongside their morning coffee.
But this is medication, not recreation.
Alan Robinson owns Northern Ireland’s first legal medical cannabis vaping lounge, Stay Medicated, in Ballyclare, where 227 members can do just that – legally.
“You don’t have to fund organised crime, you don’t have to walk out to a street corner and risk being taken advantage of or ripped off,” he told BBC News NI.
Like his customers, Alan is a private medical cannabis patient, meaning he pays for his prescriptions in full.
Doctors have been able to prescribe cannabis since November 2018 after several high-profile cases in which patients’ conditions appeared to have been improved by the drug.
At the time, the Department of Health (DoH) warned changes to the law “do not pave the way towards legalising cannabis” and penalties still apply for unauthorised supply and possession.
“When we opened we found there were a lot of people in Northern Ireland who didn’t have any idea cannabis was legal on private prescription,” Alan said.
Stay Medicated members have private prescriptions for medical cannabis to treat a range of physical and mental health conditions.
A sign above the till reads: “We don’t sell cannabis, please don’t ask.”
Safety needs to be proven
Medical whole cannabis uses the entire cannabis plant – which includes the compound THC, the part which can make people feel high.
There are now 31 private prescribing centres across the UK, which have issued more than 140,000 prescriptions between November 2018 and 2022, all obtained through the private sector.
But fewer than five NHS patients in Northern Ireland have been given the medicine.
The government said safety needs to be proven before it could be officially licenced.
At the high street shop, customers must show their prescription details and tobacco use is strictly prohibited.
“When you have a prescription, there is a plethora of strains and strengths, flowers and oils for you to try – you can work with a clinic to find the strain which works for you personally,” Alan said.
It is estimated the UK’s medical cannabis market will be worth £1bn in 2024.
A new medical cannabis factory is due to open on the outskirts of Belfast next year, the first on the island of Ireland.
The company behind the factory, Growth Industries, describes it as a “high-security, climate-controlled facility enabling fast, easy access to distribution networks”.
Louise McConnell, a 56-year-old grandmother from Londonderry, spends about £240 a month from her benefits on a private prescription.
Before she began using the medicine, Louise said she needed to take 57 pills every day.
“I would have no life without cannabis,” she said.
“On tablets, I just spent the day in bed. Now I’m growing my own vegetables and I’m out planting fruit trees.
“Cannabis medicine has allowed me to live and enjoy my life to the best of my abilities.”
‘Stigma has been horrendous’
Life as a medical cannabis user has not been easy for Louise, however.
“The stigma has been horrendous,” she said.
“But my body has been through so much, I do not need to fight with people over what I choose as a medicine.
“I choose a plant over pharmaceuticals and it’s working.”
To be eligible for a prescription for mental health reasons, patients must have at least two previous treatments.
The Department of Health said specialist doctors can only prescribe medical cannabis-based products for medical use (CBPMs) “where clinically appropriate”.
“As with any unlicensed medicine, unlicensed CBPMs can only be prescribed on a named patient basis for indications where there is clear evidence of benefit, where there is a clinical need which cannot be met by a licensed medicine and where established treatment options have been exhausted,” a spokesperson said.
NHS advice on cannabis-based products for patients in Northern Ireland can be found here.
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Sarah Carter is a health and wellness expert residing in the UK. With a background in healthcare, she offers evidence-based advice on fitness, nutrition, and mental well-being, promoting healthier living for readers.