5 myths about cannabis and MS

Wed 18 August 2021

Hannah Paull

Products made from cannabis have been shown to help people with MS manage their pain, muscle spasms and stiffness. But with so much information swirling around about what works - and what's legal - it can be hard to know what’s true and what’s not.

We dived into the details to bust 5 common myths about cannabis and MS:

1. ‘It's now legal to buy cannabis on the street if you're using it to treat medical symptoms'

Wrong. It’s important to remember that it remains illegal to buy cannabis on the street or grow it at home, even if you wish to use it to treat medical symptoms. Rather, the change in the law allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis-based medicines when they believe that their patients could benefit. So you can’t use as a legal defense that you took street cannabis to help with your MS symptoms.

2. Now Sativex is available on the NHS, I can get it to treat my pain

This isn’t the case. Sativex is only licensed for moderate to severe MS-related spasticity. The drug was approved by the National Institute for Heath and Care Excellence (NICE) in November 2019. Sativex is now approved for use on the NHS in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for people with MS with ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ spasticity if other treatments haven’t worked. It’s usually used in addition to other treatments, not instead of.

Sativex has been shown to improve spasticity-related symptoms, like sleep quality or pain. It also improves people's ability to carry out daily living tasks.

You can talk to your doctor about getting Sativex for spasticity, but this will depend on where you live. Even if you live in a nation of the UK where Sativex is available, you may not meet the eligibility criteria, or the NHS in your specific region might not pay for it. Join our campaigns community to help us change this

3. Smoking cannabis is as safe as taking Sativex

Wrong. Evidence shows that smoking cannabis can be harmful to people with MS, especially when it’s mixed with tobacco. Smoking tobacco can give you more relapses, more lesions (areas of damage in your brain or spinal cord) and make you more disabled sooner. It can speed up how fast you go from relapsing MS to secondary progressive MS, and make some MS drugs (disease modifying therapies) work less well.

Smoking cannabis is still illegal, so there’s no guidance about doses or quality either. This means you can’t be sure if what you’re smoking is safe.

Read more about how quitting smoking can slow MS disability progression

4. Cannabis is natural, so it's better than pharma drugs

That’s not how it works. One of the main active ingredients in cannabis is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). THC is ‘psychoactive’ and can do lots of things – including alter your mind and make you hallucinate. If you or your family have a history of mental health problems (such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder), using cannabis can trigger these or make them worse.

This is not the case with Sativex, which has not been linked to mental health or long-term cognitive issues. The difference between Sativex and cannabis is likely due to the combination of THC and cannabidiol (CBD) in Sativex.

Take a look our factsheet for more information on cannabis and its side effects

5. Cannabidiol (CBD) products will help my MS

CBD is the other active ingredient in cannabis. It’s not psychoactive like THC and has anti-inflammatory, anti-tremor and anti-spasmodic properties.

At the moment, there’s not enough evidence to show that products containing just CBD, like cannabis oils, can help MS symptoms. And currently there are no CBD products licensed to treat MS symptoms.

But the evidence shows that cannabis containing both CBD and THC could work for some people with MS to help with pain and spasms. It's thought that the ratio of THC to CBD determines the level of psychoactive compared to therapeutic effects of cannabis.

We updated this blog on 18 August 2021 to reflect the latest information on cannabis and MS.