New fight to legalise medical marijuana

Pot luck: MP Mike Penning called the UK’s existing cannabis laws “bizarre and cruel”.

Following a row over cannabis oil, should the law change? The drug is currently illegal in any form. But MPs are calling for change after medication was taken away from an epileptic child.

“Children in our country are dying and suffering beyond imagination.”

Charlotte Caldwell made a powerful statement outside a hospital in London yesterday, after her 12-year-old son, Billy, was discharged. As the media watched, she called on the government to legalise medicinal cannabis.

The row began last week, when cannabis oil used to treat Billy’s epilepsy was seized from his mother at Heathrow airport. Eventually, as his seizures worsened, he was admitted to hospital and the Home Office allowed his doctors to use it — but only in the short term.

Scientists believe cannabis is one of humanity’s oldest crops: George Washington grew hemp at his plantation; Queen Victoria used it to treat period pains. It was simply a fact of life: a natural painkiller and a useful material to make clothes and paper.

Then, during the First World War, British soldiers were banned from using several drugs, including cannabis. This law eventually covered the whole population, except for medical use. In 1971, this was banned too.

Two years ago, a powerful group of MPs recommended that patients should be allowed to use it again in Britain. After reviewing evidence, they said cannabis can help treat conditions like chronic pain, nausea and anxiety.

This is due to the illegal chemical THC, which is responsible for the mind-altering effects that helped it surge to popularity in the 1950s. Cannabis also contains CBD, the ingredient in the cannabis oil being used to treat Billy’s epilepsy.

However, THC has been linked to an increased risk of schizophrenia, and it can harm young people’s brain development. For this reason, it has remained illegal in the UK. Possession can lead to warnings or fines, and selling the drug could land you in prison.

Several countries and a handful of states in the US have already legalised medical use of cannabis.

Is it time for the UK to follow suit?

Joint decision

Plenty of legal drugs have dangerous side effects, say cannabis campaigners. No one is trying to ban those, but people in pain are being stigmatised for turning to one of the oldest natural remedies in the world. “My life has been ruined by the law,” says Jon Liebling. He first used cannabis at university, and says it immediately helped his anxiety — but he has since been arrested three times. This is grossly unfair, he says.

It does not matter, argue others. People can get very passionate about cannabis because it has such a powerful cultural history. But it is banned for a reason: it is dangerous and addictive. There are other legal drugs which can treat pain and anxiety; legalising cannabis will only encourage more people, often without medical problems, to fall under its spell.

You Decide

  1. Should medical marijuana be made legal?
  2. Does the history of cannabis help or hurt its case?

Activities

  1. As a class, list as many myths and rumours about cannabis as you can think of. Then go through them one-by-one, separating fact from fiction.
  2. Create a leaflet for someone with anxiety which advises them on the risks and benefits of using medical marijuana.

Some People Say...

“Herb is the healing of a nation, alcohol is the destruction.”

Bob Marley

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Billy Caldwell is the first UK patient to have been prescribed cannabis oil for his epilepsy. However, THC is illegal in Britain, meaning Charlotte Caldwell had to travel to Canada to buy it for him. She declared the bottles on the way back into the UK, but they were confiscated last week. After this, his mother says he started having seizures again for the first time in more than 300 days.
What do we not know?
Whether cannabis oil is the reason for this. Anecdotally, it seems to have helped Billy a lot, but medical trials in the US are still ongoing. The signs are positive, but the evidence is still scarce. We also do not know whether Britain will decide to legalise the drug for medical use. For now, the Home Office has launched a review to consider changes in the law.

Word Watch

Cannabis
A plant (and a drug) of many names: slang words include weed, pot, grass and dope. The plant’s dried leaves are known as marijuana, while the resin is compressed to make hashish.
Oldest
Burned cannabis seeds have been found in Siberian burial mounds dating as far back as 3000 BC.
Hemp
A strain of cannabis which is used for industrial purposes — mostly textiles.
Mind-altering
It affects the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, which deal with pleasure, memory, concentration and movement. Exercise can also stimulate these areas, which could account for the so-called “runner’s high”.
1950s
The use of cannabis for fun dates to around this time in the UK, which is also when Caribbean immigrants began moving to Britain. With the rise of hippy culture in the 1960s, its popularity grew even more.
Several countries
These include Canada, Israel and at least 11 European countries, plus 29 states in the US.

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