Despite widespread recreational use and mounting public pressure in favor of medical legalization, Britain has remained one of the few countries in western Europe with no form of cannabis legalization. However, that is all soon going to change.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a change in Home Office policy that will allow specialist doctors to legally prescribe cannabis-derived medical products by fall of this year. The decision was made following a review of medical cannabis Javid ordered in response to some high profile cases of sick children being denied access to THC containing cannabis-derived medicines. As part of that review the chief medical officer for England, Prof Dame Sally Davies, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that patients suffering from certain ailments be allowed access to the medicines.
It appears that the list of medicines that will be made available will be fairly restricted, and they will be required to meet quality and safety standards. And only those patients with “exceptional clinical need” will be able to access them. However, the decision is still quite significant, as up till this point cannabis products containing any amount of THC were outright banned, regardless of the medical needs of patients.
“Recent cases involving sick children made it clear to me that our position on cannabis-related medicinal products was not satisfactory,” Javid said announcing the decision. “That is why we launched a review and set up an expert panel to advise on license applications in exceptional circumstances.”
However, he also emphasized that the decision should not be seen as moving the country any closer to legalizing recreational cannabis.
“This will help patients with an exceptional clinical need but is in no way a first step to the legalization of cannabis for recreational use.”
Billy Caldwell is one of the children whose case was brought to the Home Secretary’s attention, after cannabis medicine his mother had bought for him in Canada was seized by the government. Billy’s family had found that cannabis oil was the only effective treatment for his debilitating seizures, and were granted a special license to be able to use the medicine. But in June customs officials at Heathrow Airport seized Billy’s medicine as he and his mother returned from Canada.
Since that incident, Billy’s mother Charlotte has been an outspoken critic of the British government’s stance on cannabis medicine. But she welcomed the news of Javid’s decision, and happily noted that the announcement came on Billy’s birthday.
“For the first time in months I’m almost lost for words, other than ‘thank you Sajid Javid’,” she said.
“Never has Billy received a better birthday present, and never from somebody so unexpected…
“But, crucially, my little boy Billy can now live a normal life with his mummy because of the simple ability to now administer a couple of drops a day of a long-maligned but entirely effective natural medication.”
Currently in the U.K. cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the most restrictive classification meaning it has no medical use. The decision will only reschedule approved cannabis-derived medical products to Schedule 2, not the plant as a whole. Despite this, cannabis advocates and healthcare professionals are welcoming the decision. Dr Tom Freeman, senior academic fellow at King’s College London, hailed Javid’s decision as having “substantial impact on research by facilitating the development of safer and more effective medicines”.
However, the restrictive nature of the current decision has some advocates of medical cannabis concerned.
“Any move to restrict medical cannabis in the UK to a very narrow range of derived products, each requiring full pharmaceutical trials, thereby blocking out the many products available overseas, will lead to great disappointment and be a missed opportunity,” said former justice minister Sir Mike Penning, who has advocated on behalf of other children needing cannabis medicines.