Following a decision from Great Britain’s Home Office, doctors will be permitted to prescribe cannabis oil and other medical marijuana preparations starting on Nov. 1. The change will first take effect in Northern Ireland, but England, Scotland and Wales are to shortly follow.
As BBC News reports, the Northern Ireland Department of Health, announcing its policy change, stated: “The amendments implement the recent expert advice from the chief medical adviser to the U.K. government and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in relation to cannabis-based medicines and will ensure a consistent approach in terms of regulation and patient access across the U.K.”
In addition to ACMD, the statement said the department coordinated with the central government’s Home Office, Department of Health and Social Care and Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
The statement, of course, warned that the changes “do not pave the way towards legalising cannabis,” and that penalties still apply for unauthorized supply and possession. And while media reports are using the shorthand “medical marijuana” to refer to what doctors can now prescribe, the Health Department statement carefully refers to “cannabis-based medicinal products.” In other words, oils and extracts — not herbaceous cannabis.
Additionally, regular general practice doctors will not be allowed to prescribe medical cannabis products. Only specialist doctors will have the authority, and their prescription decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis granted to patients who aren’t able to find relief from other medicines.
The new U.K. cannabis policy was simultaneously announced by Home Secretary Sajid Javid. According to the New York Times, Javid said, “Having been moved by heartbreaking cases involving sick children, it was important to me that we took swift action to help those who can benefit from medicinal cannabis.”
The British government officially pledged in July to make medical cannabis products available on prescription by year’s end. The decision came after 12-year-old epilepsy-sufferer Billy Caldwell of Belfast was granted an “emergency license” allowing him to be treated with cannabis medications by Northern Ireland’s Health Department. He had had earlier been previously granted a temporary license by the Home Office allowing him access to cannabis oil. His mother Charlotte Caldwell said it was the only effective means of controlling his seizures.
In a related case across the Irish Sea in England, mother Hannah Deacon of Warwickshire earlier in the year submitted an application to the Home Office to allow her six-year-old epileptic daughter Alfie Dingley to use cannabis oil. In March, Deacon and her family and supporters marched on London’s 10 Downing Street, seat of the U.K. government, to personally deliver a petition demanding their right to medicine.
And in Scotland, mom Karen Gray of Edinburgh was similarly pressing the Home Office to allow the use of cannabis oil for her five-year-old epileptic son Murray.
Shortly after the Home Office made its pledge in July, seven-year-old Sophia Gibson of Newtownards, in Northern Ireland’s County Down, became the first person to be granted a long-term license for the use of medicinal cannabis in the U.K. under a new “expert panel” system. Gibson suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. Caldwell was among those asked to sit on the expert panel which was established to review individual applications for cannabis oil.
With the new Home Office policy, doctors will be able to directly prescribe, without individual case assessment by the central government.
Tears of Joy
Charlotte Caldwell reacted to the news with undisguised joy. “I’m crying happy tears. It’s been a treasure just out of reach for what seems like forever, but to see it in writing from the government is incredible,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“This isn’t about Billy and me, it’s about a nation,” she continued. “Only relatively recently did our government and country really start to appreciate just how many wee children and people of all ages were affected by the difficulties associated with accessing medicinal cannabis.”
“But once it became clear that it wasn’t just about what was perceived to be a small number of very sick children, and that medicinal cannabis could make a life-changing or life-saving difference to more than a million people, the overwhelming support of the public and the incredible speed of reaction of the Home Secretary has delivered an utterly amazing result.”
‘Schedule’ Has Changed, But ‘Class’ Hasn’t
As a part of this change, the ACMD (Britain’s relevant authority in the matter) has moved cannabis from Schedule I, for those drugs deemed to have no medical application, to Schedule II, the next less restrictive category. This means that the U.K. (but alas not the United States) now has a system out of conformity with the UN Single Convention, the treaty overseeing the international “schedule” regime for controlled substances.
But the U.K. is unique in having both “schedules” and “classes” for controlled substances. Under the system created by the U.K.’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, cannabis is in the restrictive Class B, which carry an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison for simple possession. This rises to a 14-year charge for dealing. And, as British media reports make clear, this is not going to change.
In 2004, cannabis actually was placed in the less restrictive Class C, but this was reversed by the Home Office in 2008. In 2016, Parliament rejected a petition to have cannabis removed from the classification system altogether.
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