Billy and Charlotte Caldwell. Image source.
Charlotte Caldwell and her teenage son, Billy, have filed a legal action against the UK’s National Health Service and the health department over access to medical cannabis.
The Caldwells lodged papers at the High Court in Belfast contesting the decision of the Health and Social Care Northern Ireland’s (HSCNI) decision to block general practitioners from prescribing the drug.
Who is Billy?
Billy suffers from a rare form of epilepsy that causes multiple seizures. In 2017, he was given a prescription for cannabis oil to help manage his seizures. This was the first time the drug has been prescribed by the NHS.
According to Charlotte, cannabis oil effectively reduces Billy’s life-threatening seizures.
However, his doctor was prevented by the Home Office from giving the boy additional prescription. Because of this, Charlotte decided to take Billy to Canada, where he could access medical cannabis legally.
Charlotte and Billy, who are from Castlederg in Northern Ireland, first made headlines last year when their supply of medical cannabis from Canada was seized at the airport. The cannabis oil was six months’ worth of medication for Billy.
And because cannabis is prohibited in the U.K., authorities confiscated all seven bottles of Billy’s medication when the Caldwells arrived at the Heathrow Airport.
Following the confiscation and without his medication, Billy’s seizures returned and intensified. He had to be taken to a hospital in London. Charlotte publicly pleaded for her son’s medicine to be returned.
Due to the public outrage caused by Billy’s worsening condition, Home Secretary Sajid Javid granted him a 20-day emergency license and returned one bottle of cannabis oil to Billy.
In the wake of the controversy, the government set up a panel of experts to assess the state of medical cannabis in the country. Javid tasked the panel to make recommendations to the MPs.
Home office allows prescription of medical cannabis
Billy’s case sparked a nationwide debate on the issue of medical cannabis. This led to the government making legislative reforms that allowed the prescription of medical cannabis by qualified specialists to qualified patients.
However, despite medical cannabis being finally allowed in the country, the new law is hindered by so many restrictions. For one, general practitioners cannot make prescriptions for medical cannabis.
Also, despite specialist doctors having the authority to hand out cannabis prescriptions to qualified patients since November 2018, majority of them still refuse to.
In fact, according to some estimates, fewer than 100 patients have received prescriptions since the new regulations came into effect.
The legal challenge
Billy has since been receiving prescriptions privately from a specialist consultant based in England. However, this means that the family has to regularly fly over from their home in Castlederg to England, which adds costs and causes disruption to their lives.
Charlotte found a local GP who was willing to prescribe medical cannabis under the direction of Billy’s consultant. In medicine, this is a common practice called “shared care arrangement.”
This would have been a great solution for the Caldwells, except for the fact that the HSCNI’s interpretation of the law is different. For the HSCNI, GPs do not have the authority to prescribe medical cannabis in this way.
As a result, the Caldwells were left with no other choice but to seek clarification of the law.
According to Charlotte, in desperation and without anywhere else to turn, they had instructed the KRW Law firm to initiate a case in Belfast. She explained that they did not want to take this road and that they tried to avoid it as much as they could. They have exhausted all other options and nothing worked.
Anurag Deb, a KRW Law legal assistant, told The Independent that the main goal is to localize Billy’s care because it is unreasonable for him and his mother to keep traveling back and forth to England in order to obtain his much-needed prescription.
Traveling every now and then and having to stay over in order to have the prescription filled privately has caused stress to the family and a strain on their finances. That is why Charlotte is pushing to get Billy’s care localized to his own GP.
An urgent hearing on the matter is scheduled later this month.