In Brief

Medical cannabis legalised in the UK - is recreational use next?

Specialist doctors can now prescribe the drug on the NHS

Medicinal cannabis products is available on NHS prescription for the first time ever, as groundbreaking legal changes come into effect from today.

Consultant medical professionals may prescribe products containing products containing cannabis, cannabis resin or cannabinol if they feel their patients could benefit from it, Sky News reports. 

What has changed?

Previously, all cannabis products were classified as unlawful drugs, and UK patients could only access cannabis-based treatments with a special Home Office licence granted by the Home Secretary.

Cannabis-based products can now be prescribed, but only by consultant medical practitioners at hospitals, and only in a small number of cases, such as nausea caused by chemotherapy, muscle stiffness linked to multiple sclerosis, and for children with rare or severe forms of epilepsy.

New NHS guidance states that medicines containing cannabis cannot be prescribed by a GP, although they will be able to refer their patients to specialists to request prescriptions.

The new guidelines also state that cannabis products should only be made available “where there is a clinical need which cannot be met by a licensed medicine and where established treatment options have been exhausted”.

Why has it changed?

Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to ease legislation on medical cannabis followed a number of high-profile cases, including that of young epilepsy sufferers Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, whose conditions appeared to be eased by the drug.

Dingley’s mother, Hannah Deacon, previously travelled to Canada to procure the cannabis oil that she says controls his seizures, but was not allowed to bring it back into the UK, the BBC reports.

Deacon has welcomed the change to drug laws, saying: “I have personally seen how my son’s life has changed due to the medical cannabis he is now prescribed.”

Caldwell’s mother, Charlotte, added: “For me, what started off as a journey which was about the needs of my little boy actually turned into something, proved to be something, a lot bigger. It proved to be the needs of a nation.

“Medicinal cannabis gave me back my right as a mummy to hope, but the most important thing medicinal cannabis has done is given Billy back his right to life.”

What is the evidence for medical cannabis?

An initial review by Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s chief medical adviser, concluded there is evidence medicinal cannabis has therapeutic benefits.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which carried out the second part of the review, ruled that doctors should be able to prescribe medicinal cannabis provided products meet safety standards.

The council recommended that cannabis-derived medicinal products be listed in Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, meaning it can be administered to a patient by a doctor or dentist.

As The Independent notes, cannabis had previously been classed as a Schedule 1 drug, “meaning it was thought to have no therapeutic value but can be used for the purposes of research with a Home Office licence”.

Is this a step towards recreational legalisation?

Javid has been quick to stress that the Government’s decision was “in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use”.

That means possession of the class B drug will still carry an unlimited fine and up to five years in jail, with dealers facing up to 14 years in prison.

Yet calls for complete legalisation are growing, even in the most unlikely of quarters.

In an article for The Daily Telegraph in June, former Conservative leader William Hague called for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use. He argued that the war on the drug had been “irreversibly lost” and that a change of policy was needed.

Licensing cannabis for medical use would be a “step forward”, Hague said, before adding that the Conservatives should be as “bold” as Canada, which recently voted to legalise cannabis for recreational use.

The Lib Dems and Greens have long advocated for the full legalisation of cannabis. Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott has described the war on drugs as a failure, but ruled out a Labour government legalising cannabis.

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