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18 June 2018

The Billy Caldwell case shows how outdated the UK’s cannabis laws are

The government has as good as admitted that its attitude toward medicinal marijuana is simply wrong. Now it must do something about it.

By Sanjana Varghese

Last week, videos of a security officer at Heathrow with tears in his eyes confiscating cannabis oil from a tearful mother made the rounds on social media, provoking a national outcry.

The mother in question is Charlotte Caldwell, whose son Billy had been using cannabis oil to treat his severe epilepsy since 2016. Since the incident, mounting public pressure and media coverage led to Billy being granted a (temporary) medical cannabis license, with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid calling for a review of the UK’s strict cannabis laws.

Billy Caldwell had started using medical cannabis to treat his seizures in the USA, where, in many states, legislation on medical cannabis is more lax, when he was ten years old. His mother said he had been having up to 100 seizures per day before the treatment, but that use of marijuana had dramatically reduced his seizures in both incidence and intensity.

In 2017, Billy became the first person in the UK to receive an NHS prescription for medical cannabis. But in May of this year, his GP was forbidden from continuing to prescribe medical cannabis, given that it has not been technically licensed as a medicine in Northern Ireland, where the Caldwell family lives.

Last Monday, the Caldwells flew back from Canada – where medicinal cannabis has been legal for over ten years – with a supply of cannabis oil meant to last for six months, which was then confiscated at the border. Billy was then admitted to hospital in a life-threatening condition on the Friday. After doctors highlighted that it was a medical emergency, Home Secretary Sajid Javid granted a temporary license to Billy for the usage of his cannabis oil, and Billy has since been discharged from the hospital.

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“Charlotte Caldwell has achieved more for medical cannabis in the last ten days than campaigns have in the last ten years,” says Steve Moore of Volteface, a think-tank which explores alternatives to current drug policy. “We’ve now got the support of the Health Secretary and the Home Secretary.”

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In the UK, cannabis remains in Schedule 1 under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which labels it as “having no medical value” despite evidence to the contrary. While cannabis-related hemp oils can be found in various shops around the UK, the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, is illegal, and possession of it can result in a jail sentence of up to five years. Yet, roughly 53 per cent of the population in the UK support a reform of cannabis legislation.

Medical cannabis has been the first frontier in the argument over relaxed drug regulations, particularly as arguments for legalising it for medical use emphasise its advantages from a health standpoint, especially for patients like Billy. Charlotte Caldwell’s letter to home office minister Nick Hurd underlines that distinction, pointing out that she declared the substances at customs, and that it was specifically designed as anti-epileptic medication, not a “joint full of recreational cannabis”.

This kind of case may be why the argument to legalise marijuana for medical use has generally drawn political support from across the spectrum, rather than being the preserve of fringe groups, as it has been in the past. For example, the chair of the newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Cannabis under Prescription is a Conservative MP, Michael Penning. Jeremy Hunt publicly admitted that the plight of the Caldwells has since made it difficult for anyone in government to argue that the UK has gotten its drug law right, and that a review of the policy is necessary.

The All Party Parliamentary Group has estimated that tens of thousands of people break the current drug policy per year in order to self-medicate with medical cannabis. There are several other well-publicised cases of individuals struggling with epileptic seizures who have found their quality of life significantly improve when using cannabis oil. Medical marijuana has been legalised in many other countries, even those with largely more punitive drug policy regimes such as the USA (it remains illegal under US federal law but has been legalised in several states).

Outdated views on the dangers of marijuana, exacerbated by a lack of scientific evidence to the contrary, shouldn’t continue to influence drug policy so significantly. By granting a temporary license to Billy, the government has made obvious how irrational and cruel current drug laws are.

Theresa May has emphasised the UK’s commitment to the failing war on drugs, despite the numerous medical benefits that cannabis has been proven to have. But for people who struggle with conditions such as Billy’s, access to medical cannabis can make the difference between life or death.

Withholding help from the people who most desperately need it is callous, but unfortunately inevitable given the current state of our broken drug laws. Theresa May swore last year to double down on the failing war on drugs, even though it’s been made evident that enforcing those archaic laws comes with the cost of human suffering. It shouldn’t be a surprise that families like the Caldwells, which the state should be protecting, are victims of its inefficiency.

By calling for a review of the current drug policy on cannabis, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and other Conservative ministers have put a plaster over this case. But activists, scientists and the public will have to continue pushing the government to do more in order to stop other children like Billy falling prey to the same treatment.