Ahead of tomorrow's debate in Parliament, the case of six-year-old Alfie Dingley has thrown the need for a sensible appraisal of our medical weed laws into sharp relief.
A demonstration outside Parliament in favour of medical cannabis, organised by United Patients Alliance. Photo: Dinendra Haria / Alamy Stock Photo
Imagine you had 30 life-threatening seizures every day until your parents discovered that a certain medicine provided immense relief. You went abroad and received treatment that transformed your everyday life, until your parents ran out of money.
Back home, that medicine is illegal, effectively forcing you into a steroid-based treatment which is likely to give you psychosis and consign you to a premature death. Alternatively, your parents can become criminals and procure the medicine for you from the black market.
Meanwhile, politicians argue among themselves. Some believe that the existing regulations around that medicine must be upheld on the basis of debunked myths, while others say evidence-based research in other countries has proven they are not fit for purpose.
Welcome to the life of six-year-old Alfie Dingley in modern day Britain.
His tragic case has thrown the government’s policy on the prohibition of cannabis for medical use into the spotlight ahead of a debate on legalisation in Parliament on Friday.
Alfie is one of just seven people around the world who lives with PCDH19, a rare form of childhood epilepsy that triggers multiple serious seizures. Around three drops of cannabis oil, a low dosage, transforms his condition from debilitating to manageable. With his new medication, Alfie can expect to have around a mere 20 seizures a year, rather than around 3,000.
Therefore, MPs from across the political spectrum are calling on the government to provide an extraordinary license for Alfie to access what he needs, citing a similar case in the Republic of Ireland as proof it can be realised within our kind of regulatory framework
In the long term, however, they are advocating for the outright legalisation of cannabis for medical use.
"There are many, many cases like Alfie's – which see people suffering needlessly because of policies which ignore the scientific evidence and criminalise those who seek effective treatments like medicinal cannabis," says Caroline Lucas MP, co-leader of the Green Party and a member of an influential multi-party group of MPs that has called on the UK to legalise cannabis for medical use.
The growing body of research that proves cannabis can ameliorate the conditions of certain illnesses in a way modern medicine is simply unable to is seemingly being ignored by certain politicians, who are apparently intent on sticking to the view of cannabis held in the Reefer Madness era.
"By rigidly sticking to a prohibition based approach, the government also drives the sufferers of many diseases to illegally acquire cannabis, thus putting themselves as risk of prosecution simply for searching for pain relief," continues Lucas. "The case for legalising the production and use of medicinal cannabis is now overwhelming. Doing so would give immediate relief to people in pain, and the evidence from around the world shows that it can be done without increasing drug-related harms."
In 29 states in the US, and 12 – soon to be 15 – EU countries (including Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal) the prescription of cannabis for medical use is legal and has often seen opioid addictions reduce and violent crime decrease.
The majority of people in the UK, 78 percent, think we should follow suit and find a way of using cannabis-based medicine.
Frustratingly for campaigners, cannabis wasn't always prohibited in the UK. Until 1971, doctors could prescribe the drug for medical uses, until it was removed from pharmacopeia following sustained pressure from the USA, who naively believed that stopping prescriptions would stop criminal use.
"Since then, through state ballots, most US citizens have access to medical cannabis – but we don’t, which is illogical and inhumane," says Professor David Nutt, the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London. "The government should rectify this historic anomaly by moving cannabis to Schedule 2. This would immediately allow clinical use and massively facilitate research so that the many others like Alfie can be treated."
THC and CBD are the two most abundant compounds found within the cannabis plant. THC gets you high, CBD does not, but both have medicinal properties.
In 2016, the UK government deemed CBD a legitimate medicine, and the following year a Northern Irish boy became the first person to be given a medical cannabis prescription. Billy Calwell, an 11-year-old, did not have an epileptic fit for 300 days after beginning to take a CBD-based oil – which is remarkable. However, for people with epilepsy, medication containing a combination of CBD and THC tends to alleviate symptoms more than purely CBD-based treatments.
"We now know that cannabis can hugely help children with severe epilepsy," says Professor Mike Barnes, a neurologist and rehabilitation physician who has written on the evidence for medical use cannabis for Parliament. "It is so successful that the authorities in the US are fast tracking a cannabis anti-epilepsy drug through the approval system.
"The Home Office says [cannabis] 'has no medicinal value', which is simply wrong. It is time that the Home Office recognised the error of their ways and takes steps to legalise a safe drug that can help tens of thousands of disabled people in the UK and take them out of the criminal system. Should Alfie really be a criminal?"