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The government cannot stick to its stance of refusing medical marijuana now that it's bent the rules for Billy Caldwell

The case forced a decision: do we stick to our guns and let a child suffer, or create a new policy based on the advice of experts and on an approach that puts the wellbeing of millions of people at the forefront

Annie Corcoran
Sunday 17 June 2018 18:20 BST
Billy Caldwell's mum welcomes UK allowing cannabis oil epileptic son

Yesterday the Home Office did the right thing and returned 12-year-old Billy Caldwell’s cannabis oil, which had been confiscated when he and his mother arrived back at Heathrow last week after travelling to Canada to acquire the medication.

Billy uses cannabis oil to help treat his “life-threatening” seizures, which are caused by a severe form of epilepsy. The oil helps to drastically reduce the number of seizures he suffered, which reached up to 100 per day at one stage – a frankly horrific thought.

The country rallied around the Caldwells in what seemed to be almost unanimous support for them to get the medication back, but the real issue is that the Home Office should never have taken it away in the first place. Not just because it caused unnecessary suffering to an ill child, but because it’s now created a murky grey area when it comes to medicinal cannabis, and forced people to question the logic behind the UK’s intransigent stance.

Cannabis oil contains THC, a substance that is currently illegal in the UK, making the decision to permit Billy to have the oil one of the first instances of medicinal cannabinoids being accepted as a valid healthcare option since THC was criminalised under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971.

Billy’s case was widely documented on the TV, radio and in the press and his mother, Charlotte Caldwell, was able to use the platform to speak out and put pressure on the Home Office to change its mind. She has since called for the legalisation of cannabis for children with similar conditions to her son, but medicinal marijuana can be used to treat a huge variety of conditions, and now that the government has made it clear they’re willing to bend the rules for one individual, it’s impossible to justify the status quo.

Cannabis has been found to help relieve nausea in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. It also has benefits for people with multiple sclerosis. The one cannabis-based drug that is legal in the UK is called Sativex and it helps to relieve the symptoms and relax muscle spasms. This has recognised as a valid treatment, and yet it is not offered to millions of sufferers due to this country’s ambiguous and outdated policies on drugs coming before the welfare of its citizens.

Thanks to Billy’s highly publicised case, politicians were forced to condemn the government’s current position on cannabis, which claims that there is no medicinal benefit to it.

Dan Poulter, Tory MP and former health minister, called the situation “ridiculous”. This sentiment was echoed by fellow MP Crispin Blunt, the former prisons minister and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group that focusses on drug policy reform. He said it was “inconceivable” that the Home Office still denied patients access to medical marijuana when they were able to access it in many other countries including Canada and the US.

Cannabis is legal both recreationally and medicinally in 29 American states and is frequently prescribed to treat a range of conditions. Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have also legalised medicinal cannabis. Our perception of the drug is changing across the globe, yet the UK is lagging behind.

Outdated fears and prejudices contribute to the continued ban on medical cannabis. People argue that it would effectively lead to decriminalisation of the substance for recreational purposes too, as though that were the worst possible outcome in a country that already allows for legal consumption (and abuse) of booze, cigarettes and deep-fried Mars bars – arguably all of which are more problematic than the odd spliff every now and then.

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal recreational drug, but the lack of regulation makes it exponentially more risky than it would be if it were legal. A regulated cannabis market would bring in an estimated £1bn that could be used to invest in public services such as the NHS.

I’m not here to argue for decriminalisation or recreational legalisation of cannabis – just for it to be treated like every other medication (many of which can also be misused recreationally) and offered to those who need it.

For the government to stick to its stance on medicinal cannabis would be not only embarrassingly regressive but also worryingly hypocritical. The Caldwells’ case forced a decision: do we stick to our guns and let a child suffer, or create a new policy based on the advice of scientists, charities and even ex-policy advisers, and on an approach that puts the wellbeing of millions of people at the forefront.

It should never be up to civil servants or elected officials in the midst of a Twitter backlash to decide what treatment patients should receive – let’s leave it to the medical professionals: The British Medical Association has backed the decriminalisation of cannabis supporting the 2016 report from the Royal Society for Public Health.

Theresa May has pledged to increase NHS funding. If she really cares about improving the quality of our healthcare, she needs to put her mouth where her money is and recognise that for many patients cannabis is the best and only treatment available, and if Billy was worth bending the rules for so are the thousands of other people suffering in silence.

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