Stand up for legalisation
The Billy Caldwell case shows that the irrational drugs laws are all about policing people, not saving lives, argues Eddie Ford
Everybody must be familiar with the Billy Caldwell case. Now aged 12, he suffers from severe epilepsy that at its worst can see him having 100 or more seizures a day - a life-threatening condition that cannot be treated adequately using current medical practices.
Therefore his mother, Charlotte, was forced to go abroad to seek viable and effective treatment - travelling first to California in 2016. Here Billy began treatment using cannabis oil - which contains Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A mind-altering substance which is illegal in the UK, but widely available elsewhere in the world. This treatment kept him seizure-free for 300 days, but the Caldwells’ money ran out after eight months and they returned home to County Tyrone in Northern Ireland - where Billy became the only UK patient to get an NHS prescription for this type of medication.
But in May, the home office ordered the doctor to stop prescribing cannabis drops, as it was “unlawful to possess schedule 1 drugs” - the UK drugs laws being divided into five “schedules”, each one specifying in what circumstances it is lawful to possess, supply, produce, export and import them.1 Cannabis is currently classified as schedule 1, meaning it is judged to have no therapeutic value and therefore cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed. Drugs in schedules 2 and 3 though, such as methadone, can be legally supplied by pharmacists and doctors, whilst most schedule 4 drugs have fewer restrictions, including another one based on cannabis - ‘Sativex’ - that is used to treat multiple sclerosis.
Anyway, Charlotte resorted to collecting the prescription from Canada, where medicinal cannabis is fully legal. But when on June 11 they returned with a six-month supply of cannabis oil, it was confiscated at Heathrow airport - with policing minister Nick Hurd saying it would not be returned. Generously, Charlotte was not cautioned for trying to “openly smuggle” an illegal substance into the UK. Adding insult to injury, the home office then recommended three neurologists who could supposedly help manage Billy’s ‘transition’ off cannabis oil, but none actually saw him. According to Charlotte, one told her they did not have the time, whilst another was on an extended holiday and the third could not be bothered to return her calls.
With a mounting public outcry, Billy went through “six days of torture” without the cannabis oil - at one point it looked like the British government would rather let Billy die than deviate from the letter of the law. But the home secretary, Sajid Javid, finally relented and used an “exceptional power” to “urgently issue” a special 20-day licence for the medication to meet a “short-term emergency”. Even then, the Caldwells were only allowed a three-weeks supply that is “not to be taken home” - UK law dictating that Charlotte is not allowed to treat her own son, despite the fact it is a straightforward procedure, so the job has to be done by a hospital consultant. The rest of the cannabis medicine brought back from Canada still remains impounded. But what happens in a few weeks time when the “emergency” supply runs out? Will Javid renew the licence?
There is also the very similar story of six-year-old Alfie Dingley, who also suffers from intractable epilepsy - so far his parent’s request for a licence to use cannabis oil has been denied by the home office. Like the Caldwells, they had to go abroad - paying for five months treatment in the Netherlands until the cash ran out. Facing ever sharpening criticism, Nick Hurd previously told MPs that he “sympathised deeply” on a personal level with the situation faced by the family. However, he continued, the government is “aware that cannabis is an extremely complex substance” - which is why the World Health Organisation is “quite rightly … looking at it from every angle”. Since then, Hurd has met the family to discuss possible treatments, although the home office has stressed that no decisions have yet been made. For the sake of Alfie, they had better not take too much time deliberating. His seizures, which can number up to 20 or 30 a day, can be partially controlled in UK hospitals - over time, however, it is likely Alfie would be institutionalised and die prematurely.
Alfie and Billy are among around 20,000 children who do not respond to the usual medication prescribed by the NHS. Furthermore, there are about 200,000 people in the UK with uncontrolled epileptic seizures: MS sufferers, people with Parkinson’s disease, cancer patients, etc. Overall, it is estimated that around one million people could benefit from medical cannabis. That is a hell of a lot of suffering that could potentially be relieved, especially when we know beyond doubt that the stuff works.
Obviously UK drug laws are totally irrational, as demonstrated by the fact that the Caldwells and Dingleys - a bit like women in Northern Ireland who want an abortion - had no choice but to go abroad to get proper medical treatment for their children, virtually bankrupting themselves in the process. You can only describe this as barbaric.
Inevitably, these recent examples of the craziness of drugs prohibition have generated yet more calls for a radical overhaul of the laws in Britain - numerous MPs voicing the need for urgent reform. A new all-party parliamentary group, including Tory MP Dan Poulter and the former Conservative justice minister, Mike Penning, has restated a recent pledge to make “policy recommendations” to help remedy the situation as soon as possible. In other words, they want the legalisation of medicinal cannabis.
For Poulter, who works part-time as an NHS mental health doctor, there is increasingly strong medical evidence that cannabis can drastically improve the lives of people with several conditions. It is “extraordinary”, said Poulter, that you are not allowed to prescribe cannabis oil except in “emergency” situations. The medical needs of patients, he pointed out, are “being seen through the prism of drugs legislation” drawn up way back in 1971 - which “can’t be right, sensible or humane”. Compounding the madness, Poulter explains, as a doctor he can prescribe opioids and benzodiazepines to his patients (which are illegal as street drugs), but, thanks to the current law, he is unable to prescribe medicinal cannabis products.
Naturally enough - and welcome as always if you are of a sane bent of mind - professor David Nutt turned up to offer his viewpoint. As many Weekly Worker readers will doubtless recall, Nutt - one of the most preeminent neuropsychopharmacologists in the world - was sacked from his job in 2009 as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the then Labour home secretary, Alan Johnson, for daring to state the obvious: ie, that statistically ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding and that the decision to re-upgrade cannabis (after five years) from a class C drug back to class B was more politically motivated than scientifically justified. He reminded us that cannabis was a regularly prescribed medicine in the UK until 1971, so why not make it a medicine again?
The Billy Caldwell case, Nutt correctly remarked, is “the product of a failed 50-year prohibitionist approach to recreational cannabis” - which has “actually increased use harms and denied medical progress”. Even though cannabis oil has clearly “revolutionised” Billy’s health, the professor observed, no UK doctor can prescribe it - something “absurd and inhumane”. Nutt also highlighted the obscenity that doctors are allowed to dish out opium, but only the home secretary can dole out cannabis oil - nuts or what?
Really putting the cat amongst the pigeons, the former Tory leader, Lord William Hague, penned an exigent article for TheDaily Telegraph. Hague writes that the Billy Caldwell episode “provides one of those illuminating moments when a longstanding policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date” - by issuing the special licence, the home office had “implicitly conceded that the law has become indefensible” (June 19). As far as cannabis is concerned, Hague commented, it was “nothing short of deluded” to think the drug could be driven off the streets and compared ordering the police to crack down on its use to “asking the army to recover the empire”.
The fact that cannabis was both illegal and widely available, Hague said, effectively permitted “the worst of all worlds” to arise: encouraging more potent and dangerous variants of the drug, with users reluctant to seek help. Meaning that the overall result, he writes, is the “rise of a multi-billion-pound black market” for an unregulated and increasingly potent product, creating more addiction and mental health problems, “but without any enforceable policy to do something about it”. Rightly, Hague can see that the “only beneficiaries” of the current setup are organised crime gangs - it is “absolutely unacceptable” to allow this situation to continue”. Therefore the Conservative government should be “bold” and legalise not just the medical use of cannabis, but also recreational use as well.
At the beginning of the week, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “obvious” the government was not “getting the law on this kind of thing right” and suggested a review would take place “as quickly as possible”. But, as she has repeatedly proved, the prime minister’s instinct was to ignore the calls for sanity - declaring, quite fantastically, that there was a “very good reason” for the current rules on cannabis “because of the impact that they have on people’s lives”. Charlotte Caldwell will no doubt be delighted to hear that. It has also been widely reported that when Sajid Javid tried to raise this “absolutely urgent” matter at the June 18 cabinet meeting, Theresa May overruled him on the grounds that it was “not on the agenda” - her political acumen on display yet again.
Yet the pressure became too much and on June 19 Javid declared that the use of medical cannabis is to be “reviewed”, as the position “we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory” - one way of putting it. However, Javid was keen to stress that the move to re-examine cannabis use was “in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use” - not on his watch, Lord Hague. The penalties for unauthorised supply and possession “will remain unchanged”. The mad and futile ‘war on drugs’ will carry on, regardless. No surrender.
Meanwhile, on June 19 Canada’s parliament passed a law legalising the recreational use of marijuana nationwide. Cannabis possession first became a crime in Canada in 1923, but medical use has been legal since 2001. Canadians will be able to buy and consume cannabis legally as early as this September, being the second country worldwide to legalise the drug’s recreational use - Uruguay having got there first in December 2013, while a number of US states have also voted to permit it.
In Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and most of the US, medical products derived in one way or another from cannabis may be licensed - to the best of our knowledge, these societies have not collapsed as a consequence. Though you would hardly believe it from reading the rightwing press or listening to the BBC, the world will not come to an end if you are allowed to legally smoke a joint - nor will you automatically become a pitiful junkie living out a zombified life. Indeed, Tyler Dooley, the 25-years-old nephew of Meghan Markle - our beloved duchess of Sussex - is a cannabis farmer, believe it or not.2 Yes, that’s right: the stuff he grows is made explicitly to get high on.
Given that the ‘war on drugs’ is totally irrational, if not downright crazy - not to mention hugely costly - why does it still persist? As it is not about saving people’s lives or improving public health, you therefore have to locate another explanation - that it is really about policing people, having the power to exercise social-political control over their lives. We are the state and don’t forget it. A bit like ‘stop and search’, but on a vast scale.
We now have a totally ridiculous situation where the Liberal Democrats have a more progressive position than the Labour Party on drugs, calling for a “regulated” cannabis market that would allow licensed shops to sell the drug to over-18s, let people grow cannabis at home and introduce small “cannabis social clubs”.3 The Lib Dems have also pledged to replace imprisonment for possession of illegal drugs with civil penalties and to repeal the Psychoactive Substances Act, which recklessly banned a slew of previously legal highs - it would also move “responsibility” for drugs policy from the home office to the department of health.
But what about the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and Jeremy Corbyn? The most we have got from Abbott is a meekly mild statement saying that Javid’s promised review is “long overdue” and calling for the legalisation of cannabis oil for medical use. Yes, Diane, but what about the recreational use of cannabis - or, for that matter, the legalisation of cannabis? Earlier this year she rightly declared the war on drugs to be a “failure”. Yet the shadow home secretary went on to state that Labour would not even be “discussing legalising cannabis for recreational purposes.”4 Pathetic.
Of course, having said that, we do know what would happen if Abbott or Corbyn did call for decriminalisation/legalisation. The Sun, Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph, etc would go berserk - labelling them as dangerous and evil people who wants to hurt your kids and get them addicted to drugs. Friends of drug dealers, just as they were friends of the IRA, Hezbollah and the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, such a call would not only be widely popular ... it would be the right thing to do.
The Independent March 1 2018.