New twists in campaign to legalise cannabis for medicinal use
The campaign to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes has taken new twists and turns in recent months. Hannah Chapman looks at the current situation
IN September, a cross party group of politicians published a weighty report which concluded that taking cannabis for medical reasons should be made legal.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform said there is clear evidence the drug could have a therapeutic use for some conditions, including chronic pain, spasticity, nausea (particularly in relation to chemotherapy), and anxiety.
Their report came on the back of a review of the global evidence of the medicinal properties of cannabis by Dr Jennifer Barnes and Professor Mike Barnes, honorary professor of neurological rehabilitation at the University of Newcastle.
That review, which involved the analysis of more than 20,000 scientific and medical reports, concluded: “We consider that the evidence firmly suggests that cannabis should be a legal product for medicinal use, as long as the quality of the product is guaranteed and the supply chain secured and that medical users are, as far as possible and practicable, entered into proper long term studies of both efficacy and side effects.”
This week, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg joined the debate, co-authoring an article published by the British Medical Journal which said the UK’s medical classification of cannabis as a schedule one drug – ie having no medicinal value – “looked ever more absurd” in light of the latest evidence.
The Home Office has stuck to its guns throughout, saying there are no plans to legalise cannabis, and calling it a “harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health”.
So a straightforward stand-off then between campaigners and the government, with both sides believing there is irrefutable evidence to back up their point of view?
People with multiple sclerosis can already take a licensed medicine called Sativex which contains THC and CBD – two chemical extracts derived from the cannabis plant.
And in October the government’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced that in its opinion, CBD (cannabidiol) is in fact a medicine.
On the face of it this looked a huge step forward for the legalisation campaign, but the reality is that companies supplying CBD have been given until December 31 this year to withdraw their existing products from the market or comply with MHRA regulations.
Professor Barnes says this move by the MHRA demonstrates that the current thinking from the government is muddled and warns that smaller manufacturers of CBD could go out of business in the time it takes for the product to be licensed, potentially leaving patients who rely on the drug without a supplier.
He tells The Northern Echo: “Cannabis is still (classified as) schedule one – not medicinal by definition – at the same time the MHRA are saying that it is a medicine after all.”
He continues: “Thousands and thousands of people are taking CBD quite legally for various conditions. There is good evidence that it helps anxiety, and in particular epilepsy.
“MHRA opinion is that it is a medicine. The (All Party Parliamentary) report showed fairly definitive, indisputable evidence that it works. You can’t argue with that.”
Medical use of cannabis dates back to about 4000BC. In the 19th Century it was used throughout Europe for pain relief, including as an aid to childbirth. The drug was even prescribed to Queen Victoria to relieve period pain.
It was clinically available in the UK until 1971 when it was banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act as a Class B substance, but many other countries have some form of regulation for medicinal use.
Prof Barnes says: “Other sensible governments, including ten European countries, 24 US states and Canada have licensed it for medicinal purposes.
“They have all gone through similar governmental processes and determined it should be a medicine.
“We have got to catch up at some point soon.”
Systems of regulation vary largely, with some countries allowing cannabis to be prescribed by doctors for only a very limited range of conditions, or for end of life care.
Some US states permit patients to grow a small number of plants privately – a system that Prof Barnes does not believe should be part of any legislation in this country, should the Home Office decide to change its stance.
“You never know what people are getting,” he says. “The balance between THC and CBD is key.”
Prof Barnes, who backs the national End Our Pain campaign calling for cannabis to be legalised for medicinal use, says he is hopeful that the various developments in recent months might mean a change is on the horizon.
He says: “I think that the mood is changing so that the government has to do something.
“I feel more optimistic in the last month or so than I ever have been.”