Medical Cannabis in the UK

While marijuana is illegal on a federal level in the United States, at least you can purchase it in up to 29 states plus D.C. for medical use, and nine states plus D.C. for recreational use. There is always the clear and present danger posed by Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, who has vowed to enforce federal law. However, for now at least, millions of American cannabis lovers are safe to use the herb to treat a medical problem or simply to relax.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, our friends in the United Kingdom have not been as fortunate, as marijuana has been completely illegal there for decades. Things are about to change as the British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made a landmark announcement in July 2018.

Is the UK Steering Towards a Cannabis Friendly Approach?

Javid announced that medical cannabis WILL be available on prescription from Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), as the UK Government finally bowed to public and political pressure to force through the measure. According to the Home Office, physicians in the UK will be allowed to prescribe medicine derived from cannabis ‘by the autumn’ in 2018.

Javid said that recent cases involving sick children made it obvious to him that the government’s position on weed-related medicinal products was unsatisfactory. He continued by saying that he listened to two sets of independent advisors to reschedule medicine taken from the marijuana plant. As a result, patients will be able to get it on prescription.

Before recreational cannabis users in Britain get too excited, Javid dampened their enthusiasm by saying that this decision is “in no way a first step to the legalization of cannabis for recreational use.” At present, weed is classified as a ‘Class B’ drug in the UK, which means possession is punishable by a prison term of up to five years along with an unlimited fine. Dealers can still receive up to 14 years in prison!

The Case of Billy Caldwell

In the United States, Charlotte Figi is often held up as a prime example of why CBD should be given to children with epilepsy. In the United Kingdom, a 12-year old boy named Billy Caldwell was arguably the catalyst for the Home Secretary’s historic decision. Billy suffers from severe epilepsy, and customs officers confiscated his cannabis oil. It was an action that sparked national outrage and condemnation and caused the government to rethink its stance on medicinal marijuana.

After Billy’s medication was taken from him, the Northern Ireland Department of Health agreed to give him an emergency license which enabled him to be treated with medicinal marijuana. Javid’s announcement means that Billy will legally be prescribed medical marijuana by a doctor on his 13th birthday. His mother, Charlotte, described it as a fantastic birthday present and praised the Home Secretary for his role in the decision.

What Do British Medical Experts Think?

Medicinal cannabis has been outlawed in the UK since 1971, as the government and the public succumbed to the same fears that caused weed to be banned in the United States. There was a suggestion that it was a ‘gateway’ drug, addictive and so on. In recent times, a significant amount of clinical data has emerged which suggests that marijuana could have therapeutic benefits.

Marijuana researchers in the UK have long since faced the same obstacles as their American counterparts. Up until the recent announcement, it was necessary to obtain a Home Office license to study the plant as a medical option. Professor Mike Barnes wrote an article in the British Medical Journal explaining how weed was potentially useful for the treatment of various conditions, including vomiting and nausea in chemotherapy, drug-resistant epilepsy, and chronic pain.

According to Professor Barnes, studies recently showed that a child named Alfie Dingley, and other kids with epilepsy, benefitted from the consumption of full extract cannabis oils containing THC and CBD. The research showed that children with epilepsy respond maximally to a combination of higher dose CBD and lower dose THC. Barnes also stated that patients who used marijuana were five times more likely to report a total absence of vomiting when compared to those who used a placebo.

What Does the New Announcement Mean?

Before we begin celebrating, it is important to remember that the British Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) still has to decide what a ‘cannabis-derived medicinal product’ actually is. Anything that falls outside the criteria will remain illegal. According to Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), products that come from weed vary significantly in their impurity levels, efficacy, and composition.

It seems likely that pharmaceutical products such as Epidiolex and Sativex, medications derived from marijuana, will be available under the new rules. We also expect and hope that a variety of cannabis oils, such as the ones American patients use, to be included on the list of ‘approved’ products.

Even though it is great news, it is not likely to result in full legalization any time soon. To date, only Uruguay and Canada have fully legalized weed for recreational use, and it still hasn’t been implemented in the latter nation at the time of writing. After the case of Billy Caldwell provoked anger in the UK, William Hague, the former secretary of state, declared that the war on drugs had been lost. He said that the United Kingdom had to decide if it would join other countries that allowed medical-grade weed, or even recreational marijuana.

There are many benefits to legalizing marijuana fully in Britain. In 2016, 94% of cannabis seized by police was potent ‘skunk’, compared to just 51% in 2005. Skunk is known to increase the risk of psychosis because it has extremely high levels of THC against miniscule CBD levels. If the herb is legalized, the government can maintain control over the quality of the product. In Canada for example, all packaging has to list information on the marijuana being sold, including the name of the strain and its cannabinoid content.

Legalization also takes power away from drug dealers and reduces the number of people imprisoned for possession. It is estimated that the British Treasury would earn £3.5 billion a year in taxation. However, a May 2018 YouGov poll showed that, while 75% of Britons are in favor of legalizing medicinal marijuana, only 43% believe it should be legal for recreational use.

Final Thoughts on Medicinal Marijuana Legalization in Britain

It is a huge announcement for the industry as a whole. Britain is a nation of approximately 60 million and is one of the most influential and powerful nations in the Western world, despite its decision to lose a significant amount of power by leaving the European Union. While we don’t know what types of cannabis medication will be made available, it is an improvement on the current situation!

Although the UK is a nation hooked on alcohol and cocaine (according to Steve Moore of Volteface), there is no political push for marijuana to be legalized recreationally. The only political parties to advocate for full legalization are the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, and neither party has any chance of holding power. For the time being at least, British weed lovers will have to make do with this relatively small, but extremely important step forward.

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