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Dani Garavelli: Pressure is piling to legalize cannabis

  • Only several weeks after 12-year-old  Billy Caldwell’s story hit headlines, the parents of other children suffering from chronic seizers counter tough legislation against cannabis-based medicines.
  • UK Prime Minister vowed to have laws reviewed in order to better help children and adults maintain or receive cannabis-based treatment. ” In criminal justice terms, cannabis would remain a Class B Drug for the foreseeable future.”
Canada lawmakers voted to legalize cannabis last week. Picture:AFP/Getty Images
Canada lawmakers voted to legalize cannabis last week. Picture:AFP/Getty Images

It was the plight of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell that started the ball rolling. Just over a week ago, the severely epileptic boy from County Tyrone was taken to hospital in a “life-threatening condition” after the cannabis oil that stops his seizures was confiscated at Heathrow Airport. Along with all bar one cannabis-based medicine, the oil Billy depends on is illegal in the UK, though legal in many other countries. His mother Charlotte had been trying to bring it in from Canada after her own GP had been told he could no longer prescribe it.

The backlash that followed was a political embarrassment; so much so that, within a few days of the story hitting the headlines, the government had agreed to grant an emergency 20-day licence for the banned medication and announced a review of the law surrounding it.

The review will be carried out in two stages: the first will make recommendations on how cannabis-based medicines might offer patients medical and therapeutic benefits. The second will see the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs assess the balance of harm and public health needs and consider whether changes should be made. If the review identifies significant medical benefits, then the drug will be rescheduled, so it can be licensed for medical purposes, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid has said.

So far, so sensible. After all, Billy’s case is not an isolated one. Across the country there are hundreds of parents who believe cannabis-based medicines would help their children. They include six-year-old Alfie Dingley, who suffers up to 30 seizures a day as a result of a rare genetic mutation and who has also now been granted an emergency licence.

Here in Scotland, however, Karen Gray has been offered no guarantees about her own son Murray, five, who has myoclonic astatic epilepsy. Since December, Murray has been suffering up to 600 fits a day; he has been prescribed a variety of medications including steroids and ketamine, but nothing is working.

“This review is to be welcomed, but Murray needs this medicine now,” says Karen, from Edinburgh. “There are lots of children who will now be looking for licences and we have been given no guarantees. Are we just going to have to join a massive queue? And how long will it take before the situation is resolved?”

All of this is without taking into account the thousands of adults with chronic conditions who say cannabis relieves their pain and who are forced to illicitly grow their own or turn to dealers.

Depriving sufferers of such treatment seems particularly illogical given the UK is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of legal cannabis. In 2016, 95 tonnes of marijuana (44.9 per cent of the world’s total) was grown here for medicinal use, even though the UK government refuses to licence such products on the grounds that they have “no proven therapeutic value”.

The government’s position is further undermined by the fact that Capital Group, the company owned by Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband, Philip, has a stake in GW Pharmaceuticals, which is one of the biggest producers of legal cannabis. GW Pharmaceuticals makes the UK’s only licensed product, Sativex, which is currently so expensive it is prescribed only in Wales.

Such contradictions make the present policy unsustainable and it seems likely that, having committed to the review, the government will move to reschedule cannabis by the end of the year.

However, the debate over legalisation does not end with its use for medical purposes. In 2009, cannabis was upgraded from Class C to Class B, amidst concerns about the increased prevalence of stronger “skunk” varieties of the drug. Now, however, a growing lobby across the UK is calling for the decriminalisation/legalisation of cannabis for recreational use (with a slightly smaller one in favour of decriminalisation/legalisation of drugs in general).

Most of those who advocate change believe the so-called War on Drugs – a zero tolerance approach imported from America – has demonstrably failed to tackle the problem and that governments should start to treat drugs as a health as opposed to a criminal enforcement issue.

Such campaigners take a pragmatic view: they argue cannabis use is now so widespread that many young people in the UK find it easier to buy weed than alcohol. Legalising cannabis would take it out of the hands of criminal cartels, they say. It would generate tax revenues and allow for a degree of regulation; age restrictions, strength and distribution could all be subjected to government control.

Last week, the Prime Minister was adamant the government review would be confined to cannabis’s medicinal use and that, in criminal justice terms, cannabis would remain a Class B Drug for the foreseeable future.

But then former Tory leader William Hague challenged that stance, calling the current policy “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”. In Scotland too, there is growing support for a shift towards legalisation. The most high-profile advocates for change include former Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill and Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton.

Police Scotland has already effectively decriminalised possession, with many cannabis users given warnings instead of facing prosecution. Because it feels its hands are tied, the Scottish Government has called for drug laws (which are currently reserved) to be devolved to Holyrood.

“When we started out, we found some former MPs were saying: ‘Yes, we support that,’ after they…

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