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British Government Set to Loosen Rules on Medicinal Cannabis

By Alexander Beadle
Published: Aug 03, 2018   
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A recent report from the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board has revealed that the United Kingdom is the world’s largest exporter of cannabis for medicinal and scientific use, producing around 45% of the global supply. Despite this, medicinal cannabis use in the UK has remained heavily restricted.

Last week Sajid Javid, the UK’s Secretary of State for the Home Department (more commonly, the Home Secretary) announced a relaxation in the laws governing access to cannabis. Previously, cannabis was classed as a schedule 1 drug under the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations. Schedule 1 drugs are the most heavily restricted as they are thought to have no significant therapeutic value and so cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed. It is possible to conduct scientific research using schedule 1 drugs, but to do so you require a license from the UK Government Home Office.

The changes announced by the Home Secretary concerned the reclassification of cannabis to make it a schedule 2 drug, allowing it to be prescribed by medical professionals and possessed lawfully by anybody with a valid medical prescription.

What is the reason for the change?

This move follows the publication of a report authored by the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, which presented strong evidence in support of cannabis having a positive therapeutic effect for specific conditions. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) also conducted a second study with similar conclusions. The recognition of these therapeutic effects prompted a review into the need for a possible rescheduling of cannabis in the UK legal framework.

The review also came as a result of mounting public pressure to reconsider the schedule of cannabis after the widespread media coverage of several high-profile cases regarding medicinal cannabis access. Cases involving young children, such as Billy Caldwell, 12, and Alfie Dingley, 6, entered the forefront of the national conversation about cannabis legislation as the nation expressed sympathy for their struggles. Both boys suffer from severe refractory epilepsy that could not be treated using other drugs and were initially denied access to cannabis oil that could help improve their symptoms before being granted emergency licenses to access cannabis oil that is legal in other parts of the EU. In addition to epilepsy, there is evidence supporting the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in relieving the symptoms of a multitude of other conditions, such as fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis.

Which cannabis products will be allowed?

There are a huge number of biologically active components in raw cannabis flower that vary in concentration from strain to strain, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that the ACMD does not anticipate raw cannabis of unknown composition being labeled as one of the acceptable medications.

The Department of Health and Social Care and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency have been tasked with outlining what may be classed as a cannabis-derived product that can be responsibly used as a medication. Those products that are not included in this definition, such as raw cannabis or other products with an undetermined composition, will remain a schedule 1 compound as they cannot be said to have the same therapeutic reliability.

The most likely cannabis-based medicines to be initially approved for medicinal use will be those that are already in production for export to countries where medicinal cannabis is already legal. The cannabis-based drugs Sativex and Epidiolex, produced by the British company GW Pharmaceuticals and exported worldwide, are prime candidates for use under this new license. Both of these are formulated cannabis oils with a history of successful therapeutic use abroad, with Epidiolex becoming the first cannabis-derived drug to receive US government approval for its action as an anti-epileptic medication.

Will there be changes to recreational use?

Debate around the legalization of cannabis for recreational use is already a big topic in British politics. The ex-Conservative party leader, Lord William Hague, has been vocal in his support for the decriminalization and taxation of cannabis in the UK. Police Scotland have also made moves to issue “Recorded Police Warnings” for minor possession offenses instead of direct prosecution as the enforcement of the drug laws was creating huge stresses on police and prosecutors’ time.

Mr. Javid stressed in his announcement that the current Conservative-led government is not in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis use and that this rescheduling of medicinal cannabis should not be considered the first step in that direction. The Conservative party’s largest opponents, the Labour party, are split on this issue with other major British political parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens including cannabis decriminalization in their political manifestos during the last general election. With the next UK general election scheduled to be held in 2022, it appears that in the short-term, recreational cannabis legalization will not be considered in the UK.


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