This special report focuses on cannabis legislation in the United Kingdom.
It also delves into certain events in the past year that have started to open the government’s eyes and allowed it to see how reformative changes are necessary to move forward.
What are these events? How did these influence the government’s current stance on cannabis? Are there legislative reforms in effect? Is cannabis still illegal in the country?
We will be answering these questions below.
Cannabis in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, cannabis is classified as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This means that the drug is considered harmful and the possession of which is punishable by law.
Being caught with cannabis could land you in jail for up to five years, an unlimited fine, or even both. Producing and supplying cannabis, on the other hand, carries a prison term of up to 14 years, unlimited fine, or both.
Class A drugs are the most harmful while Class C drugs are the least harmful among all prohibited substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Other drugs under Class B include amphetamine, codeine, codeine, methylphenidate, and methoxetamine.
Even if cannabis is not legal in the country for any purpose, it is still widely used by people from all socio-economic backgrounds and of all ages. In fact, weed is the most commonly used drug in the country, followed by cocaine.
According to the Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales 2017/18, cannabis — just like in previous years — was the most commonly used prohibited drug, with 7.2 per cent of people aged 16 to 59 (or around 2.5 million people) having used it in the last year.
The use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes
The only cannabis-based drug licensed by the UK government for medical prescription is Sativex. The government also approved Nabilone, which is a synthetic cannabinoid.
Sativex is a mouth spray prescribed by doctors to alleviate neuropathic pain, overactive bladder, spasticity, and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, Nabilone is used as an antiemetic to treat vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy and as analgesic for neuropathic pain.
EU residents who have been prescribed medical cannabis products are allowed to possess them while freely travelling throughout the UK. Unfortunately, this rule does not apply to UK-resident patients. They are not permitted to travel to the UK whilst in possession of medical cannabis even if they have obtained a prescription in a country where the drug is legal.
The call for cannabis legalization
Late last year, more than 25,000 people had signed a petition calling on the UK government to fully legalize cannabis.
Those behind the petition pointed out that the ban on the drug has “done nothing to reduce cannabis use” and that it was “hypocritical” of the government to not allow the drug when the sale of tobacco and alcohol is legal.
They also argued that allowing the sale of cannabis in licensed shops would regulate the THC levels of legal cannabis products and would also prevent the youth’s access to the drug.
The advocates also emphasized that cannabis is far safer compared to other painkillers and that it has shown promise when it comes to reducing seizures.
What’s more, cannabis sales could generate for the government up to £3.5 billion.
The government’s response to the petition
In response to this petition, the government said it has no plans to legalize the drug and that raw cannabis is not recognized in the country as having any therapeutic benefit. It noted that there is strong scientific evidence that weed is a harmful drug that can be detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.
However, while the government said that they had no intention to review the classification of cannabis, they assured that they will “continue to monitor international developments on the evidence base around cannabis.”
Because of this response, the petition was closed early this year.
The case of Billy Caldwell
The case of Billy Caldwell was considered by many advocates to be an illuminating moment for cannabis in the UK as it demonstrated how ineffective and out of date the government’s drugs policy is. His case then sparked a national conversation on the issue of medical cannabis.
Who is Billy Caldwell?
Billy Caldwell is a 12-year-old boy who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy. His mother, Charlotte, uses cannabis oil to treat his symptoms.
The oil, which contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the main psychoactive chemical ingredient found in cannabis — is effective at dramatically reducing the boy’s seizures.
In 2017, Billy became the first child in Ireland to be prescribed medical cannabis oil by the National Health Service. After getting his prescription, Billy reportedly went 300 days without experiencing a seizure. However, the Home Office later ordered that this license not be renewed. This prompted Charlotte to take Billy to Canada to procure his medication.
In June, Charlotte was trying to bring in a supply of Billy’s cannabis oil from Canada. However, upon their return, the medication was confiscated by authorities at Heathrow Airport.
Charlotte had publicly pleaded for the cannabis oil to be returned. This was six-months’ worth of medication for Billy.
Following the confiscation and with none of his treatment available, Billy experienced intense seizures and had to be admitted to a hospital in London.
A special and exceptional license was granted
With Billy’s condition worsening and with doctors making it clear that it was a medical emergency, Home Secretary Sajid Javid gave him a special license and approved the return of some of Billy’s cannabis oil.
The problem, however, was that the Home Office released only one of seven bottles of cannabis oil, which is only 20 days’ worth of medication. Also under this “exceptional license,” the oil should only be administered at the hospital and cannot be taken home. This is because the license was meant only for a short-term emergency.
Home Secretary allows Billy to go home with his cannabis oil
The Home Office eventually granted Billy permission to go home to Northern Ireland with his cannabis oil. Ireland’s Department of Health also issued an emergency license to accommodate the boy’s need for his medication.
Alfie Dingley and other kids needing medical cannabis
Javid issued the same special license to Alfie Dingley, another boy who needs cannabis oil to treat his medical condition. The six-year-old boy suffers from multiple hard-to-control seizures due to a rare form of epilepsy called PCDH19.
Alfie’s parents decided to take their son to the Netherlands to undergo cannabis treatment. His cannabis oil medication, which consists of both THC and CBD (cannabidiol), proved to effective at reducing his seizures.
The Caldwells were forced to return to the UK because their medical insurance does not cover treatment in the Netherlands and their funds were running low.
Left without any other choice, Alfie’s parents asked the UK government to allow the boy the get medical cannabis legally in the country. However, in February, the Home Office denied their request, saying that cannabis “cannot be prescribed, supplied, or administered to the public.”
A positive development came the following month after an outpouring of support from people. The Home Office said it was considering a medical marijuana trial as a potential treatment option for Alfie.
But that was it. Until Billy happened.
Javid’s granting of special license to Alfie and Billy led to pleas from other families. Parents with children suffering from similar conditions and who are in need of medical cannabis for treatment are also asking the Home Office to grant them access to the drug.
According to The Guardian, there are around 20,000 children in the UK who do not respond to traditional medication prescribed by the NHS.
Home Office calls for special review
After several high-profile cases of epileptic children crying out for legal access to medical cannabis, Javid commissioned a special review on the issue.
He said that the recent cases involving sick children have made it clear to him that the government needs to take a fresh look at medical cannabis products and their scheduling.
Javid tasked the Chief Medical Officer and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to identify significant medical and therapeutic benefits of the drug and to assess whether cannabis should be reclassified. Rescheduling cannabis for medical use would also make it easier for experts to conduct studies and research on the drug.
The ACMD’s recommendations
In its published short-term review, the ACMD recommended that cannabis-derived medical products be placed on Schedule 2 (from Schedule 1) of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. The council acknowledged that cannabis has medical benefits in certain circumstances.
The ACMD said that rules should be amended in order to allow and make way for cannabis-based medications. Drug experts advised the UK government to give doctors the option to prescribe medical cannabis products to patients suffering from certain health conditions.
The ACMD’s review followed the review conducted by Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Medical Advisor for the UK Government.
After examining existing relevant research, Dame Sally concluded that there is evidence of the medical and therapeutic benefits of cannabis-derived products.
Javid said that he considered both the ACMD’s and Dame Sally’s recommendations.
The ACMD’s review forms part of a series of measures announced by Javid. These include the launch of an expert panel that will consider individual patient applications for senior clinicians to prescribe medicinal cannabis products.
The expert panel currently has eight members. These are:
Chair: Dr Michael McBride – Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland
- Dr. Clare Gerada, MBE – GP and former chair, Royal College of General Practitioners
- Professor Martin Kirkpatrick – Consultant Paediatric Neurologist, Scotland
- Dr. Jenny Harries, OBE – Deputy Medical Director and Regional Director South for Public Health England
- Dr. Jackie Cornish, OBE – National Clinical Director Children, Young People and Transition to Adulthood in NHS England
- Professor Tom Walley, CBE – Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at Liverpool University and Director of the NIHR Health Technology Assessment Programme
- Professor Finbar O’Callaghan – Professor of Paediatric Neuroscience at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health and (Hon) Consultant Paediatric Neurologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital
- Andrew Evans (non-voting observer) – Chief Pharmacist, Wales
Medical cannabis to be made legal
On July 26, 2018, Javid announced that cannabis-derived medical products would be made legal for patients who have an “exceptional clinical need.” However, he did not indicate an official date for the introduction of this new policy.