Expert panel of doctors to advise on medicinal cannabis cases, announces Home Office minister

Sajid Javid bowed to political pressure to grant an emergency licence for medication for 12-year-old Billy Caldwell

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Monday 18 June 2018 16:54
Nick Hurd announcing an expert panel to look into medicinal cannabis cases

An expert panel of doctors will be established to consider the use of medicinal cannabis in individual cases, a Home Office minister has announced.

The prominent cases of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, 6, "highlighted the need for the government to explore the issue further and our handling of these issues further", Nick Hurd told MPs.

Both young boys are reliant on cannabis oil to treat severe forms of epilepsy, a substance that is illegal in the UK but available for medical reasons in countries such as Canada.

Home secretary Sajid Javid bowed to political pressure at the weekend when Billy was taken into hospital, allowing a 20-day emergency licence for the banned medication. He was discharged on Monday afternoon.

The issue appears to have divided senior ministers, as Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, signalled his support for an overhaul of the law but Theresa May poured cold water on proposals during a major speech on the NHS on Monday.

It comes after an outcry over the case of Billy Caldwell, whose mother Charlotte was stopped at Heathrow Airport last Monday when she tried to bring a batch of medication back from Canada to treat his seizures.

Mr Javid's intervention has prompted fresh questions over the case of Alfie Dingley, from Warwickshire, whose family applied to the government earlier this year to access the treatment for him.

Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Hurd announced plans for an expert clinicians' panel, led by chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, to advise ministers on any individual applications to prescribe cannabis-based medications.

He told MPs: “Both the home secretary and I, as fathers, as the rest of the House, as the rest of the country, have of course been profoundly moved by Billy’s story as well as others like it.

“But I want to reassure the families and the public today that the home secretary and I are working together to do all we can to take forward the necessary steps at pace, and more announcements will be forthcoming.”

Labour's Diane Abbott said the public was “increasingly dismayed” by the handling of the case and urged ministers to intervene.

The shadow home secretary said: “The concentration of the relevant compounds in cannabis oil is so small that nobody could possibly get any recreational use from it.

“I accept the home secretary moved quickly to allow a short-term supply for Billy Caldwell, but overall the government’s management of the current system of issuing licenses for cannabis oil has been lamentable.

“It has left people in pain and suffering, and families anxious and distraught.

“It seems to us on this side of the house, that the current system, even with the expert panel he refers to, is simply not fit for purpose.”

Her concerns were echoed by former care minister Norman Lamb, who said it was "utterly shameful" that people were being criminalised for using cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Earlier, shadow minister Andy McDonald made a plea to the Home Office to intervene to prevent others enduring the "unbearable pain" he did when he lost his son to epilepsy.

The Middlesborough MP lost his 16-year-old son Rory in 2006, who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy.

The move was welcomed by academics and campaigners, who urged ministers to extend access to people with a range of conditions.

Prof Celia Morgan, professor of psychopharmacology at Exeter University, said: “We currently lag behind the rest of the world in our use and research of cannabinoid medicines.

"We have an important opportunity in the UK to learn from the experience of introducing medical cannabis in other countries.

"It seems a crucial time to introduce a more progressive legislation that means that children like Billy are able to access the most effective medicines for their conditions, determined by evidence, not legal status.”

Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society: “We’re looking forward to hearing more details and hope the government goes further than just reviewing individual cases.

"Evidence shows that cannabis for medicinal use could work for around 10,000 people with MS to relieve pain and muscle spasms.

"It’s simply wrong that people are being driven to break the law to relieve these relentless symptoms.”

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