Cogollos de cannabis

Medical cannabis to be available on prescription in the UK

  • Doctors will be able to prescribe products derived from marijuana as of October this year.
  • The decision is backed by expert reports, who believe the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes is a positive step forward.
  • This, however, is in no way a first step to the legalisation of recreational cannabis, the British government has said.
Cogollos de cannabis

Last summer, the British government surprised some by approving the use of cannabis-derived medicinal products, which doctors will be able to prescribe as of October. This legal change is the direct result of the ordeal suffered by young Billy Caldwell and his mother Charlotte, who managed to put the health of his 13-year-old son on the British political agenda. Billy suffers from a severe form of epilepsy that gives him violent seizures and, as repeatedly explained by his mother, cannabis oil is virtually the only remedy capable of easing his son's suffering.

The campaign that prompted the legislation change allowing the use of medical cannabis started to take shape after an incident that took place at Heathrow Airport, when Billy and his mother were coming back home from Canada. The mother and son had travelled there to buy CBD oil for Billy but, immediately after landing, they were stopped by custom authorities following accusations of trying to smuggle drugs into the UK, after which Billy's medicine was confiscated from him.

Shortly after, Billy was urgently admitted to hospital following a severe seizure, a terrible accident that, as Charlotte explained, could have been prevented if only his medication hadn't been confiscated. Faced with such a situation, Charlotte launched a social media campaign to mobilise public opinion, sparking a national debate about the medicinal use of cannabis. In the wake of the campaign, many voices were raised in support of the Caldwells, with claims that there's no point in denying access to cannabis products to patients whose conditions could benefit from their use.

This, however, was not the first time Billy had obtained a licence allowing him to use cannabis-derived products. He had already been granted one when he was under treatment in London, and a second one in Northern Ireland, where he currently lives with his mother. Other people in similar situations, however, where not as lucky, and were refused a licence. This arbitrariness, that forced patients to rely on the goodwill of institutions, underscored the need inadequacy of a normative that was failing to efficiently address such delicate situations.

Pipa de marihuana

Common sense takes over

Following the airport incident, and with public opinion supporting Billy's and his mother's request, the British government decided to intervene, and had the Minister of Home Affairs, Sajid Javid, announce that the UK would join the ever-growing list of countries that allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medicinal use.

The decision came in response to public pressure but also to advice from representatives from the health sector. A review by Dame Sally Davies, chief medical adviser, concluded there is evidence that medical cannabis has therapeutic benefits. This view was reinforced by the second part of the review, which was carried out by The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and which outlines that the possibility to prescribe cannabis derivatives is a positive step forward. These two opinions underscored the need to reschedule cannabis-derived products from Schedule 1 - drugs thought to have no therapeutic value - to Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations, legally recognizing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and encouraging research.

In 2016, The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had already considered the possibility that CBD-containing products should classify as medicines. As a result, the number of users almost doubled, increasing from 125,000 in 2016 to over 200,000 in 2017. As for THC-containing products, a much more rigid approach was adopted.

In any case, spurred by a supportive public opinion and by the reports from healthcare specialists, the British government introduced the legislative changes that allow doctors to prescribe cannabis-derived products as necessary, putting an end to a prohibition era started in 1920.

Hojas de cannabis

Step by Step

Among the measures announced by the government, the Department of Health and Social Care, together with the MHRA will develop a clear definition of what constitutes a cannabis-derived medicinal product, meaning that doctors will be allowed to prescribe only the derivatives that meet the definition.

While this is definitely a major step forward regarding the use of medical cannabis, the British authorities have made it clear that in no way is it a first step to full legalisation. In fact, cannabis will stay a class B drug, meaning that both use and trafficking will remain punishable with heavy financial penalties and even with up to 14 years in jail for the most serious offences.

This declaration of intent is in line with the Conservative Party's traditional approach to cannabis legislation. The governing party has always been against changing the cannabis laws, a conservative stance that, thankfully, is not shared by parties like UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, who are more open to exploring the benefits of cannabis. Less clear is the position of the Labour Party - the UK's biggest political formation together with the Conservative Party - which has always been shrouded in ambiguity.

Parlamento de Reino Unido

At a time of legislative changes, which clearly enjoy support from public opinion, as well as from some minority yet influential parties, it would come as little surprise if the laws governing cannabis-derived products - and, why not, also recreational cannabis - became increasingly more liberal in the short term. But over and above future scenarios, the fact remains that thanks to a mother's perseverance, to public pressure and to irrefutable scientific evidence, thousands of people in the UK will now have the possibility to improve their quality of life with a natural product.


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