Patients turning to drug dealers to source cannabis for pain relief, claim Cork GPs

Dr John Sheehan said he is treating patients who had sourced the drug from dealers to ease their pain
Patients turning to drug dealers to source cannabis for pain relief, claim Cork GPs

Dr Sheehan, of Blackpool Bridge Surgery, said access to cannabis via the HSE is limited and needs to be taken “out of the shadows”.

A NUMBER of older people with serious health conditions have turned to local drug dealers as a last resort to alleviate excruciating pain, a Cork GP has claimed.

Just months after the Department of Health approved a limited number of patients to access medicinal cannabis by prescription from a consultant, Dr John Sheehan said he is treating patients who had sourced the drug from dealers to ease their pain.

“People having to resort to backstreet deals because their symptoms are so bad is sending out a signal that we are failing patients,” he said. 

Dr Sheehan, of Blackpool Bridge Surgery, said access to cannabis via the HSE is limited and needs to be taken “out of the shadows”.

“There are a few things we can do as a society to destigmatise cannabis including broadening the indications to make it more accessible for people,” he said.

Bantry-based GP, Dr Paul O’Sullivan said he felt it would be inappropriate for patients to be able to access cannabis through their GP alone.

“We would also counsel them to use the normal sort of pain relief and access other methods of dealing with pain.

“I have seen people with conditions like MS or severe pain where conventional medications don’t really work. People do turn to illicit medications like cannabis.

“There is some evidence that this has some effect on chronic pain, but there would have to be strict criteria with regard to dealing with this.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate to have this on general prescription. There would have to be a number of steps before a patient could be deemed eligible. The potential for misuse is still there.

“There is some validity that it is useful for chronic pain. However, its use would have to be fairly constrained,” Dr O’Sullivan added.

Dr Sheehan said: “I would encourage people to tell their GP if they are using cannabis so we can help patients with their symptoms and pain.”

Current indications where consultants can prescribe medicinal cannabis include spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis; intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy; and severe refractory (treatment-resistant) epilepsy.

The Government also runs the Ministerial Licence programme, enabling 63 patients to avail of medicinal cannabis products, which are sourced from a pharmacy in the Hague in the Netherlands.

Dr Sheehan said people feel shame over illegal cannabis use.

Dr. John Sheehan. Picture Dan Linehan
Dr. John Sheehan. Picture Dan Linehan

“Patients suffering from anxiety and chronic pain are the two groups I’ve come across who most use this,” he said. “People fear they are going to be judged. These are individuals who have never had to resort to illegal activity before. It’s hard and very unfair that people are being put in this position. They are carrying this around like a sense of guilt.”

“In terms of access, it is really problematic within the HSE. You have to have a consultant for a very specific purpose. It’s a very narrow therapeutic indication for conditions such as seizure disorders.

DANGER

“I think the biggest problem with cannabis is the name... people are having to go to places they are not comfortable with. If they didn’t have to do this anymore, we would be doing patients a service.”

Dr Sheehan emphasised that patients who disclose their cannabis use to a GP would not be reported to gardaí.

“All we care about is the patient’s symptoms and how best we can manage them. I would certainly want to know if a patient was taking cannabis and I know that other doctors feel the same. There is a danger that it may interact with other medications.

“That danger isn’t very high, but it has to be said that this is a concern. I might also see a patient and think they are managing fine when they are in actual fact having to take extra for their pain.”

Meanwhile, disability activist Evie Nevin from Clonakilty, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, said she has heard from a number of people in the community who have opted for alternative methods to ease their pain.

“If [cannabis] was decriminalised, it would take away the power from the drug dealers,” Ms Nevin said. “

It could then be regulated and taxed, with that money being ringfenced for health services. I know so many people who have criminal records now just because they were trying to ease their pain.”

Pro-cannabis activist Martin Condon from the Glen said he knows of people in Cork who have used illegal sources to get cannabis. He added that the current access programme is not fit for purpose.

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