So much can change in a week...
You may have been following the incredible story of young Billy Caldwell and his mother Charlotte's fight to access his life-saving cannabis medicine. Initially brought over from Canada and subsequently confiscated by The Home Office and then returned, now Billy can finally take his medicine home to Northern Ireland.
This was the UK's 'Charlotte's Web' moment. The game changer. Such a compelling and emotive story was always bound to get media attention but the level of pressure piled on the Conservatives was huge... and it paid off.
On the 27th June the Home Office announced a review of the scheduling of cannabis, stating it would take up to 6 months to assess the medical applications of the drug and whether or not these findings would warrant rescheduling. During this process the government set up an "expert panel”, to advise Ministers on any license applications to prescribe cannabis-related medicinal products in exceptional cases where there is an unmet clinical need.
The panel’s criteria seemed restrictive and for many, the idea of the Home Office continuing to insist on micro-managing the health needs of chronically ill individuals, seemed a continuation of their refusal to see sense on the issue and to simply allow doctors to prescribe cannabis medicines as they see fit.
On Tuesday 3rd July everything changed... again. The government has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs directly to consider the appropriate scheduling of cannabis-related products. They have been given three weeks to review cannabis and to suggest an appropriate scheduling.
Everything we have come to learn about the Conservatives and reform on illicit substances leads us to believe that schedule 2 is the most likely outcome. However there are arguments to be made for a less restrictive schedule. In truth the difference between schedule 2 and schedule 4i is minimal and 4ii is extremely unlikely to be allowed as it enables access without a prescription. Sativex, the only cannabis based medicine available in the UK is Schedule 4i. You can read the finer ins and outs of scheduling here.
Regardless, any rescheduling will mean doctors are able to begin prescribing cannabis medications to UK patients. It's a HUGE success for medical cannabis in the UK. Rescheduling was the UPA's first and foremost goal in this campaign and we're incredibly proud to have played a part in realising this break-though.
There are, as always, a few caveats... Numerous governments have implemented legislation on medical cannabis that prevents those that stand to benefit from accessing it. Here's a rundown of our three biggest fears for medical cannabis legislation and why the UPA will be fighting to avoid these (hopefully obvious) pitfalls.
1. A limiting list of conditions
A government imposed list of conditions for which cannabis can be prescribed would be unprecedented. NICE are the body who regulate prescriptions and they rarely put such restrictions on medications. Instead there are lists of approved medications for different symptoms & conditions. However, a medication as safe to consume as cannabis with so many applications simply cannot be restricted by any such lists.
Those who are in pain or suffering nausea or spasms should be given access immediately prior to diagnosis. Some conditions can take months or even years to properly diagnose. We cannot let patients suffer due to a lack of pre-defined need for cannabis. If their doctor believes it will help their symptoms then they should be allowed to prescribe. It really is that simple.
2. "After all traditional therapies have been exhausted"
This clause, which has been implemented in parts of Australia, is absurd. Cannabis is a pain reliever; it helps regulate the immune system and is a powerful anti-inflammatory. What this clause suggests is that patients would have to try opiates for pain, powerful immune-suppressants for immune-regulation or steroids to control inflammation, all dangerous drugs with severe side-effects that could be avoided if cannabis is used first. Of course there are conditions that are simply too severe for cannabis to control and it won't be the first port-of-call for doctors in all circumstances. But it certainly shouldn't be limited to only being utilised when patients have already tried a plethora of potentially much more harmful pharmaceuticals.
If a patient can avoid addictive and damaging painkillers such as tramadol, fentanyl and oxycontin by consuming cannabis instead, they should be free to do so. We only have to look at the opioid crisis in the USA, and the deaths caused by prescribed painkillers, to see why this is so important.
3. Continued criminalisation.
No one in possession of or consuming cannabis should be criminalised. These are completely victimless crimes and to continue to arrest people for possession and consumption will inevitably lead to chronically ill people being caught up in a criminal system they simply should not have to deal with.
Patients who are prescribed cannabis medicines should not have to carry around a prescription with them at all times. They should not be stopped and questioned by police and they should not have to prove themselves sick in order to be allowed to continue living their lives.
Implementing a system wherein patients are required to carry around proof of their prescription 24/7 is impractical to the extreme. Chronically ill people have enough to worry about. They have enough to think about when leaving the house without adding paperwork proof of their legal right to consume their medication in public. They also have enough stress in their lives. The idea that forgetting their "proof" might lead to a night in the cells is unthinkable.
We MUST urge the government to act with compassion now and fully decriminalise possession and consumption of cannabis for all to ensure patients are not caught up in the criminal system. With PCC's across the country calling for similar moves this really isn't asking for anything extreme. This would simultaneously allow our police forces to focus on violent or more serious crimes.
UPA are doing everything we can to make sure that these points are raised and that the voice of patients is heard, starting with our hugely successful Patients IN Parliament event last Friday July 6th where many medical cannabis patients gave emotional and powerful testimony and where we launched our new Patient Survey so that there is #nopatientleftbehind! More on both of these very soon...
If you look around the world you will find many systems for the regulation of medical cannabis. Few have got it completely right. The UK government must listen to patients and doctors when making these changes to legislation so that they ensure the safety and ease-of-access for all who stand to benefit.
With so much forward momentum you could be forgiven for thinking the fight for medical cannabis in the UK is over but it has never been more crucial to get involved.
Please write to your MP now. Explain to them what medical cannabis should look like, why they need to listen to patients and organisation like the UPA who represent them. The UK may not be the first country to legalise medical cannabis (far from it!) but together we can ensure the UK is the first country to get it right and develop a system that works for all patients.