Theresa May has poured cold water on the idea of a full-scale review of the laws on medicinal cannabis, despite an admission from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that the UK had not got the legal position right.
The hopes of families of children like 12-year-old epilepsy patient Billy Caldwell were raised when Mr Hunt said that a review had been launched by Home Secretary Sajid Javid and would be concluded “as quickly as we possibly can”.
But the Home Office was unable to immediately confirm whether a review was in fact taking place, and Theresa May’s official spokesman appeared to distance the Prime Minister from the idea.
Asked about the issue following a speech on NHS funding in London, Mrs May said only that the option already existed to provide licences for the medical use of cannabis on the basis of clinical advice.
“Do we need to look at these cases and consider what we’ve got in place? Yes,” said the Prime Minister.
“But what needs to drive us in all these cases has to be what clinicians are saying about these issues.
“There’s a very good reason why we’ve got a set of rules around cannabis and other drugs, because of the impact that they have on people’s lives, and we must never forget that.”
Mr Javid intervened over the weekend on the grounds of urgent medical need to grant a 20-day licence for Billy to be treated with cannabis oil, after he suffered seizures following the confiscation at Heathrow Airport of supplies brought by his mother from Canada.
Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Javid had acted “extremely decisively” in the case, adding: “What he has announced yesterday is that he is going to review the law around this as quickly as he can”.
The Health Secretary added: “I don’t think anyone who followed that story could sensibly say that we are getting the law on this kind of thing right.”
Challenged over whether the legal situation could remain unchanged for weeks or months in the face of cases like Billy’s, Mr Hunt replied: “I sincerely hope not.”
He added: “It does take time, because we’ve got to not only look at the law, we’ve got to look at the clinical evidence and make sure there are no unintended consequences.
“But I think we all know that we need to find a different way.”
But when the PM’s official spokesman was asked at a regular Westminster media briefing whether a review of the law was under way, he replied: “We have reviewed this individual case and a decision has been taken based on clinical advice.
“Beyond that, I don’t have anything specific for you, beyond saying that we will continue to look at clinical evidence and take decisions on that basis.”
The spokesman added: “In terms of the Health Secretary this morning, I think he said we have to look at the law and the clinical evidence. I think that’s something that we are alive to.
“But equally, going forward, any decisions will have to be made on the basis of clinical evidence and how to provide the best treatment.”
Billy’s mother Charlotte Caldwell, of Castlederg in County Tyrone, has called for an urgent meeting with Mr Javid and Mr Hunt to discuss the positive impact on her son’s condition of cannabis oil, which is restricted in the UK but legal elsewhere in the world.
She credits the oil’s active ingredient THC with keeping Billy’s seizures at bay, saying he was seizure-free for more than 300 days while using it.
After an “absolutely horrendous” period of escalating seizures following the confiscation of his supplies at Heathrow, he was now eating again and less affected by his epilepsy, she said.
2/3 This is a very complex situation, but our immediate priority is making sure Billy receives the most effective treatment possible in a safe way.— Home Office (@ukhomeoffice) June 16, 2018
Another Northern Irish mother of a child with epilepsy said her six-year-old daughter Sophia was at risk of death without the banned treatment.
Danielle Davis, from Newtownards, told Today: “Sophia definitely needs whole-plant medicinal cannabis with THC. If Sophia doesn’t have this and her seizures continue, we could be visiting a headstone.
“I honestly pray to God that it is not too late. That would be heartbreaking if it took so long to sign off on something that my daughter’s life is taken.”
Former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg said that ministers’ resistance to legalising medicinal cannabis was based on “prejudice”.
He said: “It is pathetic – and I saw it for myself in Government – this bone-headed triumph of prejudice over evidence. The active substance in these cannabis-derived medicines is less harmful than stuff you can get across the counter from a chemist.
“When I was in Government, I certainly couldn’t get Theresa May and the Home Office and indeed other parts of the Government to just address the evidence.
“That poor mother is finding herself in this heartbreaking situation because politicians can’t separate off the issue of medicinal cannabis to help her child from their wider prejudice about drugs generally.”
Labour MP Andy McDonald, whose son Rory died as a result of epilepsy, wrote to Mr Javid calling for a blanket exemption on the use of cannabis oil to alleviate epilepsy, along with measures to ensure supplies of the substance.
Mr McDonald wrote: “I am firmly of the view that when paediatricians and neurologists are struggling with intractable epilepsy cases, if in their considered medial view cannabis oil would be efficacious, then they should be permitted to administer it, safe in the knowledge that it is lawful to do so.
“I make no comment about the administration of cannabis oil more widely and restrict my appeal to these highly specific cases, but speaking as a parent who lost a beloved son to intractable epilepsy I have to speak out in the hope that further deaths can be avoided and that families are spared the unbearable pain of losing a child.”