In Depth

Medical cannabis case raises hopes of change in law

MPs back bid by mother of epileptic schoolboy Billy Caldwell to change ‘bizarre and cruel’ drug legislation

Calls for a change to British laws on medicinal drugs are growing amid anger over the case of Billy Caldwell, a severely epileptic 12-year-old whose cannabis oil medication was confiscated by customs officers.

What happened to Billy Caldwell?

The schoolboy, from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, suffers from a life-threatening form of epilepsy. His condition was finally brought under control after the family was given medical cannabis in the US. His local GP began prescribing it when they returned home but was then told that he could no longer issue the drug.

Billy’s mother, Charlotte, recently travelled to Canada to bring back seven bottles of cannabis oil to help her son, but these were confiscated when she landed at London Heathrow last week. Matters came to a head when Billy suffered a severe fit and was admitted to London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Friday, prompting Home Secretary Sajid Javid to issue an emergency licence to allow the cannabis treatment, based on the advice of senior clinicians. Following two doses, Billy’s health is now improving, reports The Times.

What is the medication?

The oil that Billy has been taking contains a psychoactive substance from the cannabis plant called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is illegal in the UK.

The Government claims there is no medicinal value to cannabis, although it has made an exception for a drug called Sativex, licensed in the UK to treat multiple sclerosis (MS).

“Doctors could, in theory, prescribe it for other things outside of this licence, but at their own risk,” says the BBC. “MS patients prescribed Sativex, who resupply it to other people, also face prosecution.”

Another type of cannabis oil, called CBD, is legal in the UK, but contains less than 0.05% of THC.

What difference will Billy Caldwell’s case make?

The Home Office has not updated the law, but has granted a limited licence for the drug to be administered to Billy in hospital for 20 days.

However, 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”, says Annie Corcoran on The Independent.

Charlotte Caldwell has said she will not leave London until she has met government ministers to demand a review of the “massively outdated” laws on medicinal cannabis use.

She has the backing of Sir Mike Penning, a Tory MP leading an all-party group looking at medical cannabis. Penning has called the existing laws “bizarre and cruel” and wants a “fundamental reform” of the system, with cannabis reclassifyed as having a medicinal use.

Although a number of European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, and almost 30 US states have legalised medicinal cannabis, critics in the UK fear it is a way to decriminalise the drug “through the back door”.

Penning insists: “Medical cannabis is a health issue, not a misuse of drugs issue. It’s about patients and relieving suffering.”

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