Two cannabis-based medicines approved for NHS

Seized: Customs officers took away cannabis oil used to treat Billy Caldwell (above right). © Getty

Does this go far enough? Charities have welcomed the move, although campaigners who have been fighting for access to the drugs said the new guidelines were a “massive missed opportunity”.

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

Charlotte Caldwell made a powerful statement outside a hospital in London, last year, 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 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.

Yesterday, there was a big announcement. Two cannabis-based medicines, used to treat epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, were approved for use by the NHS in England.

Doctors will be able to prescribe Epidyolex for children with two types of severe epilepsy (Lennox Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome), which can cause multiple seizures a day.

Clinical trials have shown that the oral solution, which contains cannabidiol (CBD), could reduce the number of seizures by up to 40% in some children.

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 World War One, 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 containing THC.

Should the UK now go further and 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 (1945-1981), Jamaican singer-songwriter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Epidyolex does not contain the main psychoactive component of cannabis, THC. The other treatment, Sativex, is a mouth spray that contains a mix of THC and CBD. It has been approved for treating muscle stiffness and spasms, known as spasticity, in multiple sclerosis. But doctors will not be allowed to prescribe it to treat pain. It was the first cannabis-based medicine to be licensed in the UK after clinical trials, and has been available on the NHS in Wales since 2014. It costs around £2,000 a year per patient.
What do we not know?
Whether the change is “too little, too late”. Many parents of children with epilepsy are paying thousands of pounds a month for medicines containing both THC and CBD, imported from Europe and Canada. They have reported dramatic reductions in the number and severity of seizures in their children, and are furious that NICE has not approved any cannabis-based medicines that contain both components for childhood epilepsy. The campaign group, End Our Pain, said the new guidelines were a “massive missed opportunity”.

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. With the rise of hippie 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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