The news emerged as research revealed that Northern Ireland residents make up around 15% of the total number of those accessing private cannabis prescriptions in the UK.
Using cannabis-based products for medicinal purposes has been legal in the UK since November 2018, with specialist doctors able to prescribe in a limited number of circumstances where other medicines have failed.
It followed a high-profile campaign led by Co Tyrone mother Charlotte Caldwell after her son Billy’s medicinal cannabis oil was seized at Heathrow Airport in London after they returned from a trip to Canada in 2018.
Research carried out by cannabis clinic Releaf has estimated that around 15% of the UK’s 20,000 private medicinal cannabis patients are based in Northern Ireland.
Google Trends data has also indicated that search interest in the term “medical cannabis” over the last 12 months was almost twice as high in Northern Ireland than in England, with demand also higher than in Wales and Scotland.
The trend was not repeated when the analysis was applied to the term “cannabis”, suggesting a greater interest in the drug for medicinal, rather than recreational use.
Alan Robinson runs Stay Medicated Dry Herb Vape Lounge in Ballyclare, providing a space for those with a prescription and signposting members of the public to where they can access private prescriptions.
He said the figures were in keeping with a spike in the numbers of people accessing his services.
“This is a place for people to consume their prescription without people judging them,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“When I opened I sent an email to all the private cannabis clinics in the UK. They have professional doctors trained in mental health issues.
“At the moment, the majority of people who are approaching me are elderly and want to enjoy their garden or play with their grandkids, or people are coming in with mental health issues. It’s been quite overwhelming, really busy.”
Many of those who attend Alan’s lounge have been affected by the Troubles, with former paramilitaries and members of the security forces often sitting down together.
“We’ve had people come into the shop and they’ve maybe been active in the 70s to some capacity,” he said.
“Ex-prisoners, ex-police, ex-Army. A lot of pensioners. People who are finding it difficult to communicate with their immediate families.
“Being able to sit around a table with maybe two or three people and chat with them, that’s progress. There are some guys that come up to our lounge instead of sitting in the pub, which is what they used to do.
“We’ve had people from east and west Belfast and maybe someone who is ex-military all sitting together talking about their medicine.”
Government guidance on medicinal cannabis indicates the treatment is “only likely to benefit a very small number of patients” but may be prescribed if the patient has a rare form of epilepsy or if treatments for multiple sclerosis and sickness following chemotherapy are ineffective.
“This is because there is limited scientific evidence medicinal cannabis is safe and effective,” the NI Direct website states.
“It is also because there are few licensed products available that have undergone the normal strict testing for medicines.
“This testing means that medicines are safe, of good quality, and are effective.
“Medicinal cannabis will generally only be considered when other treatments were not suitable or had not helped. The specialist will discuss with you the most suitable treatment option.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said the number of patients prescribed medicinal cannabis products on the NHS in Northern Ireland was less than five.
“The law changed on 1 November 2018 to allow doctors on the specialist register of the General Medical Council to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use (CBPMs), where clinically appropriate.” they said.
“Any decisions on whether to prescribe such products are, however, a matter for specialist clinicians who are responsible for providing clinical care to individual patients, and not for the Department.
“There are fewer than five patients prescribed and supplied unlicensed CBPMs) within the HSC in Northern Ireland.”
In April, Northern Ireland hosted its first medical cannabis conference, with patients and health workers sharing their experience of using the drug.
Alan Robinson said it was a sign of changing attitudes and a rising interest in its medicinal use.
“Everybody has grown up to think that cannabis is bad. It’s always been lumped in with other drugs,” he said.
“If police are making drug busts, you always hear about the cannabis. Even on the medicinal side, you have medical professionals who are not supporting it.
“People are starting to catch on. Word-of-mouth in Northern Ireland is very important and the interest is there.
“That conference was initiated in direct response to the amount of patients they have been getting from Northern Ireland,” Mr Robinson added.
“The likes of a pharmacy, a clinic, even a licence to grow in Northern Ireland, I think is on its way. It’s just going to take someone with the right sort of thinking to pull it all together.”