Cannabis-based medicines get green light as Britain eases restrictions

The decision came after a number of high-profile cases involving children being denied access to cannabis oil to control epileptic seizures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2018, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2018, 10:06pm

Doctors in the UK will be able to prescribe cannabis-derived medicine after the government announced a relaxation of laws governing access to the substance.

Thousands of people with drug-resistant conditions will potentially be able to use cannabis-derived medicinal products for treatment after British Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced they should be placed in schedule 2 of the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations, allowing clinicians to prescribe them by the autumn.

Cannabis has been classed as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it is thought to have no therapeutic value and cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed. It may be used for the purposes of research, but a Home Office licence is required.

The move by the home secretary comes after the government’s official drug advisers and the chief medical officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, separately concluded there was evidence of therapeutic benefit for some conditions.

The reviews came after a number of high-profile cases involving children being denied access to cannabis oil to control epileptic seizures. The cases included those of Billy Caldwell, 12, and Alfie Dingley, six, who have forms of intractable epilepsy, also known as refractory epilepsy, that appear to be eased by the use of cannabis oil.

Announcing the changes, Javid said: “Recent cases involving sick children made it clear to me that our position on cannabis-related medicinal products was not satisfactory. This will help patients with an exceptional clinical need, but is in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.” The former Conservative leader William Hague and some senior police officers had advocated such a move.

When the review was announced, there were reports of divisions within the cabinet over the approach that should be taken, with Theresa May disagreeing that a review should go ahead.

But Javid, who commissioned both reviews, told parliament that if experts identified significant medical and therapeutic benefits, he would be minded to follow their advice.

The Department of Health and Social Care and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will now develop a clear definition of what constitutes a cannabis-derived medicinal product so they can be rescheduled and prescribed. Only products meeting this definition will be rescheduled.

The UK is the world’s largest exporter and producer of cannabis-based medicines; a British company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is the global leader in developing them.

Professor Mike Barnes, the clinician who successfully applied for a licence on behalf of Alfie Dingley’s family, welcomed the news and expressed his hope that the rules governing medicinal use cannabis would not be “too restrictive”.

Karen Gray, whose 38 Degrees petition for medicinal cannabis for her son Murray garnered more than 240,000 signatures, said: “There are so many children in the UK who will benefit from medicinal cannabis, not to mention the adults that this medication helps also. I am delighted that the government are now acknowledging that cannabis has medicinal value. We still have a long way to go but this is certainly progress.”