The British government has announced that it will review the use of medicinal cannabis, which could lead to its legalisation, following a week of drama after the Home Office confiscated a severely epileptic boy's cannabis oil, prompting the return of his "life-threatening" seizures.
A high-profile campaign highlighted the plight of Billy Caldwell, 12, who had gone around 300 days seizure-free after his doctor in Northern Ireland prescribed him cannabis oil, until the Home Office blocked him from using it. After growing pressure from within the Conservative Party, and across the floor from the Labour Party – who said they would legalise medicinal use cannabis in government – the announcement was made in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.
"Cases like Billy's, Alfie Dingley's [who also has a rare form epilepsy treatable with cannabis oil] and others like it have shown that we need to look more closely at the use of cannabis-based medicine in the healthcare sector in the UK," Home Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons. "Because it has become clear to me since becoming Home Secretary that the position that we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory."
As part of a cache of announcements, Javid explained that a commission will consider the evidence available for the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of cannabis-based medicines. "In the short-term [...] the government will be establishing an expert panel of clinicians to advise ministers on any applications to prescribe cannabis-based medicines," he said. "This is intended to ensure that advice to ministers on licensing in these cases is clinically led, based firmly upon medical evidence and is as swift as possible."
This leaves the UK's cannabis policy in an unprecedented state of flux, and means the legalisation of medicinal cannabis – previously unfathomable under a Tory government – is closer than ever.
Javid went on to stress, however, that cannabis would remain illegal for recreational use, following calls from former Conservative Party leader William Hague to legalise the drug because it is delusional to believe that cannabis could ever be "driven off the streets".
The pending reconsideration of cannabis' schedule 1 controlled status, which means a Home Office license is required in order to conduct research into the plant, could prompt the further expansion of the UK's cannabis-based product industry – one that already produces and exports more cannabis-derived medicine than that of any other country.
It is understood that British Sugar – which manages the UK's largest cannabis greenhouse – was granted an exceptionally rare high-THC Home Office license in 2016, allowing them to grow the plant for an anti-MS drug, Sativex, and an anti-epileptic medicine, Epidiolex, which is set to receive breakthrough status next week.
However, responses to Freedom of Information requests made by the Beckley Foundation – a think-tank calling for global drug policy reform and greater scientific research into psychoactive substances – and shared exclusively with VICE have revealed the depth of the UK's existing cannabis industry.
There have been 240 cannabis cultivation licences granted since 2010, including 65 high-THC licenses. This suggests that companies in the UK, the world's largest producer of medicinal weed products, could be well placed to help Britain strengthen its position as a world leader if the laws around researching cannabis are liberalised.
However, critics say it demonstrates the contradiction between ongoing government policy – that cannabis has no legally recognised medicinal or therapeutic benefits – and practice.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director at Release, a charity that advocates for evidence-based drug policies, welcomed the announcement of the government review, but stressed that "the government should immediately remove cannabis from Schedule 1, which is reserved for drugs that are purported to have no medical value".
The number of export licences granted by the UK government for cannabis and cannabis-derived products since 2016. Responses to FOI requests by the Beckley Foundation shared exclusively with VICE.
"Under this government, the UK has become the largest producer and exporter of medical cannabis in the world, allowing wealthy businesses and individuals to line their pockets," she said.
Around 20,000 children with forms of treatment-resistant epilepsy could benefit from the use of medical cannabis, and many of their parents are calling for them to be granted urgent access.
"It is outrageous and inhuman how the government has treated sick children such as Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, who are suffering from life-threatening cases of epilepsy," said Amanda Feilding, director and founder of the Beckley Foundation. "Cannabis has a growing body of therapeutic evidence behind it, and it is unacceptable that bureaucrats are overriding medical decisions made by doctors."
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