Paediatricians are seeing a 'massive upsurge' in the number of parents demanding that psychoactive cannabis medicine be prescribed for their epileptic children.
Hundreds of parents are reported to have contacted doctors after the high-profile cases of epilepsy sufferers Alfie Dingley, six, and Billy Caldwell, 12, prompted Ministers to change the law on giving children the drug for medical reasons.
Both youngsters were treated with cannabis containing the non-psychoactive compound cannabidiol (CBD), as well as small amounts of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
In the UK, there are 20,000 children who suffer epilepsy that doesn't respond to conventional treatments. But leading paediatricians say they are horrified that many parents now see cannabis as a panacea for their child's fits.
Dr Joseph Symonds, a paediatrician at Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Children and research fellow in paediatric epilepsy genetics at the University of Glasgow, said: 'We have seen a massive upsurge in the number of parents asking for cannabis, and specifically cannabis with THC, because of the media interest around the children who have responded well to it.
'But the fact remains that while CBD products have medical benefits, there is just not enough evidence to say that THC cannabis will help a child's epilepsy.'
When cannabis was legalised in November, the Home Office 'rescheduled' it – meaning the drug is now considered to have potential medical benefits. Cannabis containing tiny amounts of THC can now be prescribed more widely if specialists agree.
THC is responsible for the 'high' experienced by recreational users of cannabis but can also trigger psychosis. Dr Symonds said some patients now mistakenly believed cannabis is a cure-all.
'I can usually talk patients round and explain the dangers but there's a minority of people who will just go and buy the drug online anyway,' he said.
He added that of the 2,000 child patients he sees at his clinic every year, more than 1,600 of their parents have asked him to prescribe cannabis.
And he said that at a meeting with a dozen paediatrician colleagues, they all agreed there had been a spike in the number of patients asking for cannabis. Moreover, Dr Symonds said the media storm surrounding the drug was damaging his relationships with his patients. He explained: 'It's important to have a good therapeutic relationship with your patients and agree what the best way forward is.
'If they come to you saying they want cannabis and you have to say 'Actually, I don't really want to prescribe your child this because we don't know whether it's harmful or not and we don't know whether it helps or not', that has potential to damage that relationship.'
He added: 'Every parent whose child has epilepsy is going to ask themselves what they can do to help. And the one thing they will have heard about is cannabis.
'Compounds derived from cannabis should be treated like any other medicine: investigated rigorously and when proven to be safe, efficacious and cost-effective, prescribed correctly.'
The Home Office and Department of Health are now deciding exactly which doctors will be allowed to prescribe cannabis products. In the meantime, doctors who want to do so must apply to an independent panel for approval.