Weed has been undergoing a rebrand – with countries around the world decriminalising and legalising the drug. From today, it’s going to have a legitimate present in the UK. More than 80,000 specialist doctors will be able to prescribe medical cannabis to patients who can demonstrate “an unmet clinical need”.
The drug can be used for a range of medical treatments but the changes are quite limited. The alteration in government policy may be the UK’s first small step towards legalising cannabis – although don’t expect this to happen any time soon.
“This is one of those decisions where society has moved ahead of the politics,” says Steve Moore, a senior policy advisor at VolteFace, a drug policy think tank. A survey released at the beginning of this week from Populus Polls and VolteFace found that 59 per cent of the British public supports the legalisation of cannabis, even beyond medical use. Drug policy campaigners, as well as a growing consensus from the medical community, had long been pushing for the legalisation of medical cannabis, but the government remained steadfastly opposed – until very recently.
A watershed moment came with the case of Billy Caldwell, a 12-year-old epilepsy patient, whose life-saving cannabinoid products were confiscated in June 2018. Cannabis oil was effective at controlling Caldwell’s seizures in a way traditional medical products weren’t. A furore ensued, and the legalisation of medical cannabis went from being a niche issue to one the government simply couldn’t ignore anymore.
In late July, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced changes to the scheduling of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 2001. Cannabis was previously in schedule one, which labelled it as having “no medical value”. It has now been moved to schedule two, which will make research on cannabis itself easier. On October 11, Javid announced that doctors across the UK would be able to prescribe medical cannabis. He cited the concerns of parents such as Charlotte Caldwell as one of his rationales for the policy change.
Any slight change to how cannabis is used, regulated or perceived is a boon for drug liberalisation advocates. The war on drugs is an enduring feature of British policy. Now, many hope that Javid’s move could kick-start a wider shift in drug policy. In practice, however, the changes are narrow, and the government has made it clear that this is a medical matter, not a political one. Campaign groups, as well as organisation like the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), will assess how the policy actually unfolds, with the aim of providing a review of the policy in 2019.
“Given the backdrop of a very preoccupied and socially conservative government, the legislation is a victory in and of itself,” says Henry Fisher, a policy advisor at Hanway Associates, a drug policy consultancy and think tank. “But that’s reflected in why they’ve made it very restrictive. They are very wary of allowing too broad an access to patients, and then that leading to broader reforms.”
“This change in the law is a landmark moment,” says Genevieve Edwards, the director of External Affairs at the Multiple Sclerosis Society. “But work needs to be done to ensure people with MS are actually able to access medicinal cannabis on the NHS.”
Doctors who can prescribe cannabis as a medical treatment are listed on the General Medical Council’s specialist register. There are around 80,000 people on this list. At the moment, NHS doctors have very little guidance about how to prescribe cannabis. The Independent has reported that many have indicated they will not, because there is no larger infrastructure to support them if something does go wrong.