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UK is Pulling Ahead of the USA to Nationally Legalize Medical Cannabis

Emily Robertson
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Billy Caldwell’s story has galvanized a nation and pushed medical cannabis legislation to the tipping point in the UK. There can be no waffling now.

Cannabis legalization seems to be making a slow creep across the globe. And it looks like the UK may be stepping up before the United States. As of Nov 1st, there is a new (albeit very limited) national policy for medical cannabis in the UK.

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Image credit: Drop of Light

But don’t get your hopes up that this will include any sort of recreational consumption. UK Prime Minister Theresa May is adamantly against the legalization of cannabis. In fact, she initially vetoed the decision to review the uses of medical cannabis. Eventually, she was forced to cave; the review went forward and has since encouraged the rescheduling of the plant from Schedule 1 to 2.

The battle for cannabis has been fought long and hard by advocates across the UK, with Scotland’s population and parliament continuously disagreeing with Westminster’s desire to keep cannabis criminalized. That said, this is an enormous step forward for the four nations of the United Kingdom.

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Image credit: Melinda Nagy

The Inspiration of Billy Caldwell

This whole review is thanks to Billy Caldwell and his mother, Charlotte. Caldwell is a thirteen-year-old boy from Northern Ireland with autism and epilepsy. He was legally prescribed medical cannabis in Canada. When he and his mother returned home to the UK with six months worth of medicine, it was confiscated at Heathrow Airport (June 2018).

What followed was a legal wrangling that had cannabis activists from all over the world weighing in on the UK’s decision, while Billy’s health deteriorated. He was eventually taken to hospital in intensive care with seizures escalating, after having been 300 days seizure free. Before the cannabis, Caldwell had been suffering from up to 100 seizures per day. It was only with cannabis oil that his seizures were improved. Pharmaceutical medicines simply weren’t cutting it.

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UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid called for the chief medical officer to review of medical cannabis. But, as mentioned, the Prime Minster refused. At first, at least. Since then, the review went through and found that research lent enough proof to reschedule cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2. This would allow for prescription of cannabis-derived products that included THC.

History of Cannabis in the UK

Up until this point, cannabis has only been prescribed in the most severe cases – rare, and few and far between. CBD products are legal in the UK, and have been for quite some time. However, cannabis has been illegal since 1928. And CBD dominant products may not have any THC component.

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Image credit: The Guardian

Advocates have been arguing for legalization of cannabis in the UK, but it was Caldwell and his family that finally pushed the fight a couple steps forward. Alfie Dingley, who also has severe epilepsy, pushed for legalization, as well. He was granted a prescription for cannabis oil alongside Caldwell.

The Status of Cannabis in the UK Now

Many other families have applied for prescriptions for their children, but most have been denied. UK parliament announced the legal rescheduling of cannabis, which comes into effect on November 1. Once this takes place, cannabis will be available on prescription for those who struggle from chronic pain, nausea and appetite loss from chemotherapy, and severe epilepsy.

Unfortunately, many UK residents will still suffer without cannabis as the legislation is incredibly strict, and doctors remain skeptical of its benefits. In fact, they can flat out refuse to prescribe cannabis. Finally, only specialist doctors will have the go-ahead for prescribing cannabis – general practitioners do not have the right to do so.

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However, for the next several months, prescriptions will mainly be without general regulation and will be decided case-by-case. While this seems less than satisfactory, it is a big step for a traditionally conservative parliament, and will allow patients across the UK options other than opioids. Great news for the more than 28 million people who suffer from chronic pain across Britain.

Next year, however, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence will publish a more comprehensive review to decide on funding through the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). This will help to create uniform prescription regulations and definitions for qualifications.

Cannabis in Europe

The UK’s new policy will bring them to the fore of European countries in terms of cannabis policies. Last year Germany legalized medical cannabis, so it’s about time Britain followed suit!

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And it makes sense given Britain’s outpouring of cannabis production. Currently, the UK is responsibly for the production of as much as 60 percent of cannabis research crops.

Former UK science minister George Freeman is excited and optimistic about the new policy, seeing it as a “huge business opportunity”.

Ms Charlotte Caldwell is hopeful on a more personal level. She told The Telegraph: “I feel absolutely, truly blessed from the bottom of my heart, that Billy has had access to this medicine.”

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Image credit: Oprea George

This month, she and philanthropist Paul Birch opened the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis to promote cannabis research and legalization. The centre will continue to lobby for further legalization of medical cannabis so that more families will have access to this medicine. Caldwell explained her decision to continue the fight, even after Billy was granted access: “I’m also very conscious that there are hundreds of thousands of other families in the United Kingdom that need this medicine, and need it now.”

PM May might be opposed to further loosening the restrictions on medicinal cannabis, but Caldwell and Birch aren’t giving up the fight. Let’s see where this fight goes – perhaps one day the UK will catch up with Canada!

Emily Robertson

Emily Robertson has been writing freelance and contract work since 2011. She has written on a variety of topics, including travel writing of North America and the growing legalized cannabis industry across the globe. Robertson has a master’s degree in literature and gender studies, and brings this through in her writing by always trying to explore different perspectives. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Robertson moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 2016 to undergo her doctorate in Scottish Literature. She lives in the West End with her dog, Henley.

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