Thousands of sufferers of drug-resistant conditions have been offered hope after the home secretary launched a review into medicinal uses of cannabis following public pressure from the families of two sick children.
But Sajid Javid ruled out legalising the drug for recreational use following interventions by the former Tory leader William Hague and policing officials.
The review by the Home Office and the chief medical officer, Sally Davies, was announced following high-profile coverage of the cases of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell and six-year-old Alfie Dingley, who both have forms of intractable epilepsy that appear to be eased by the use of cannabis oil.
Following the announcement of the review, Caldwell’s mother, Charlotte Caldwell, said: “At every stage we have mentioned making history, and we have mentioned it because common sense and the power of mummies of sick children has bust the political process wide open and is on the verge of changing thousands of lives by bringing our medicinal cannabis laws in line with many other countries.”
Javid’s decision to review medicinal cannabis marks another major intervention by the secretary of state since his appointment at the end of April. Although some announcements had been set in motion before he took office, he has overseen the fallout from the Windrush scandal, which included the suspension of some immigration enforcement measures, the launch of new counter-terrorism legislation and strategy, and he has removed medics from the skilled migrant cap.
Addressing the House of Commons on the issue of medicinal cannabis, Javid said: “It has become clear to me since becoming home secretary that the position that we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory.
“It’s not satisfactory for the parents, it’s not satisfactory for the doctors, and it’s not satisfactory for me. I have now come to the conclusion that it is time to review the scheduling of cannabis.
“Before I go into any detail of the review, let me be absolutely clear that this step is in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.
“This government has absolutely no plans to legalise cannabis and the penalties for unauthorised supply and possession will remain unchanged.
“We will not set a dangerous precedent or weaken our ability to keep dangerous drugs off our streets.”
Cannabis is currently a schedule 1 drug, meaning it is currently thought to have no therapeutic value and cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed. It may be used for the purposes of research but a Home Office licence is required.
The review will be in two parts. Davies will consider the evidence available for the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of cannabis-based medicines. In the next step, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) will provide an assessment based on the balance of harms and public health needs, of what, if anything, should be rescheduled.
The home secretary said if the review identified significant medical and therapeutic benefits, then cannabis could be rescheduled for medicinal use.
Alfie and Billy are among around 20,000 children who do not respond to the medication prescribed by the NHS.
Dingley’s parents said his seizures almost disappeared after he was prescribed an EU-certified cannabis medicine in Holland.
They lived there for six months until the parents, who had spent £30,000 on his treatment, ran out of money.
Hannah Deacon, Alfie’s mother, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday: “Before we went to Holland he was in hospital every week having intravenous steroids and other unlicensed medication to stop his severe clusters of hundreds of seizures.
“I didn’t know my child for two years, all I knew was A&E, ambulances, purple seizures, panic, fear. That was my life. The miracle was that [cannabis-based drugs] worked and it changed his life.”
Similarly, Charlotte Caldwell, Billy’s mother, credited cannabis oil as “life-saving” and said its prescription caused Billy to go around 300 days seizure-free.
After they returned to the UK they both launched high-profile campaigns for their children to be able to have access to their anti-epileptic medicine. Their cases also renewed the wider debate over legalisation.
In an article for the Telegraph on Tuesday, William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative party, urged Theresa May to legalise cannabis.
He said that the “battle [against cannabis] is effectively over” and that the UK’s drug policy is “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”.
Advocating a major policy change, Hague said it was delusional to think cannabis could be “driven off the streets”.
Hague claimed that criminal gangs were the chief beneficiaries of the drug remaining illegal and that many police forces had “stopped worrying about it”.
It is understood that around half a dozen police forces have de-prioritised the enforcement of cannabis-related crimes.
Accordingly, police chiefs came out in support of Hague’s remarks in respect to the war on drugs.
“Hague is right that the war on drugs is not being won,” said David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands. “We need a fresh approach and to treat people with addictions as having a medical problem, not just as an enforcement issue.”
“Decisions on the harm of drugs should not be taken by the Home Office, but by medical professionals at the Department of Health,” Jamieson, who served as a government minister between 1997 and 2005, added.
Ron Hogg, the Durham police, crime and victims’ commissioner, echoed his remarks.
“Lord Hague’s statement that the war on drugs has failed echoes the call for reform of the drug laws which I have been making for some time,” he said.
Durham is understood to have adopted the most liberal approach to policing drug offences in the country and is focused on the need to reduce drug-related harm. It is the only force in the country to be rated as outstanding by official inspectors.
“Drug users should be able to seek effective treatment without fear of prosecution, and control of the drugs market should be taken out of the hands of organised crime groups,” Hogg said.
There were 136,352 recorded drug offences in England and Wales in 2016/17. Just under 76% of all drug offences recorded were for the possession of cannabis and this is likely to be a major drain on police budgets.
The government, however, insisted it would not decriminalise cannabis.
“In terms of decriminalising cannabis there are no plans in that respect,” May’s spokesman said. “The evidence is very clear that cannabis can cause serious harm when it is misused.”
The Home Office also issued a strong rebuttal which reiterated that the government “has no intention of reviewing the classification of cannabis” and “it will remain a class B drug”.