Medicinal cannabis may be signed off and legalised by a panel of experts within the next two to four weeks.

Following controversial treatment of Billy Caldwell, a 12-year-old boy from Northern Ireland suffering from a rare form of epilepsy, the government has moved to decide whether medicinal cannabis should be legalised and available on prescription.

Billy’s condition causes severe fits and seizures that can occur up to 30 times a day. The condition is largely drug-resistant, but has proven responsive to a cannabis compound called Cannabidiol (CBD).

Emergency licencing

In June, Billy’s mother Charlotte Caldwell was granted a 20-day emergency licence allowing her to possess and administer the drug, but not before Billy was rushed to hospital in a critical condition following severe seizures.

The story of six-year-old Alfie Dingley, another severely epileptic child who does not respond to treatments currently available on the NHS, proves that the legality of medicinal cannabis needs to be reviewed.

Mother Hannah Deacon took Alfie to Holland in an effort to find a working treatment for her son, who also suffers severe clusters of epileptic seizures. She found that three drops of cannabis oil, administered underneath the tongue, drastically reduced the number and frequency of his fits.

Both families had to campaign for a licence to treat their children.

Government review

Home Secretary Sajid Javid ordered an evidence review by a panel of experts headed by chief medical adviser Professor Dame Sally Davies, which was published on Tuesday. In it, Davies announced that there was, “conclusive evidence of therapeutic benefit of prescribing cannabis-based products for certain medical conditions”.

This is a breakthrough for those seeking treatment with medicinal cannabis, as it is the first time the government has acknowledged and attributed health benefits to the drug.

The report sees medicinal cannabis as a potentially effective treatment in reducing:

  •      chronic pain
  •      nausea and vomiting (as a side-effect of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments)
  •      muscle spasticity symptoms in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients

The report will be reviewed by ministers, who will then need to sign off on applications within the next two to four weeks.

If approved, doctors will be able to write prescriptions for medicinal cannabis for their patients.

Doctors wishing to do this will need to take, “full responsibility for risks and liability”, the Home Office has said, as well as prove there is an “exceptional clinical need” and that the patient is unresponsive to all other forms of available treatment or medication.

What’s next?

As the health benefits of medicinal cannabis are touted as a potentially miraculous treatment, the government will be look at changing the legal status of cannabis in the UK.

Currently, there are products sold in the UK containing cannabidiol, a compound of cannabis exempt from scheduling regulations.

Sativex is a product used to treat symptoms of MS, and is currently classed as a Schedule 4 drug.

THC, the compound in cannabis that causes feelings of intoxication and being “high”, is likely to remain illegal, while the non psychoactive compound CBD may be promoted to be recognised as a substance with medicinal and therapeutic benefit.

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