By Emily Ledger
This weekend, we saw the resignation of the former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, following weeks of criticism which culminated in the leak of security footage showing the cabinet member in a “passionate embrace” with one of the department aides. Shortly after the revelation of Hancock’s resignation, it was announced that the former Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, was to take his place as the Health Secretary.
Those who have followed cannabis policy in the UK over the last few years will remember that Sajid Javid, who was serving as the Home Secretary at the time, played an important role in the rescheduling of cannabis back in 2018. Could this mean good things for the further progression of the medical cannabis sector in the UK?
The legalisation of medical cannabis in the UK
Cannabis was rescheduled in November 2018, following the high-profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley – two young boys with rare forms of epilepsy who had achieved success with medical cannabis treatment. This rescheduling essentially meant that cannabis products could now be prescribed for a number of conditions here in the UK.
At the time of the rescheduling, Sajid Javid said: “Having been moved by heartbreaking cases involving sick children, it was important to me that we took swift action to help those who can benefit from medicinal cannabis.
“We have now delivered on our promise and specialist doctors will have the option to prescribe these products where there is a real need.
“I’m grateful to the expert panel – who have been considering cases in the interim – and to those who’ve worked hard to bring about this change at the earliest possible opportunity.”
However, things weren’t as straightforward as many had dared to hope.
While the legalisation of medical cannabis allowed for practitioners – with the support of a specialist doctor – to prescribe cannabis-based medicines for any condition where there is reason to believe it might benefit, the vast majority of prescribers were hesitant to adapt to the new ruling.
This hesitancy is still widespread, with only a handful of medical cannabis prescription being completed through the NHS, almost three years after legalisation. Coupled with the extremely limited list of recommended applications issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, this has meant that most patients in the UK have so far been forced to access their medicines through private clinics.
The fight to progress medical cannabis policy
Due to the continuously restrictive access to medical cannabis here in the UK, the campaign from many patients has been ongoing, despite the landmark policy change almost three years ago. For many, the red tape around the prescription of medical cannabis products has made the reform all but meaningless.
A number of prominent cannabis reform advocates have continued on their mission to improve patient access to medical cannabis products. One of these advocates is Charlotte Caldwell, whose son – Billy – became the first patient in the UK to receive a lifetime NHS prescription for medical cannabis to treat his epilepsy.
Recently, Charlotte and Billy set out on a 1,000-mile journey from Northern Ireland to Westminster to campaign for a meeting with the then-Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss how the government can improve patient access to medical cannabis. The positive news, this meeting will still be going ahead!
There will be those who see the appointment of Javid to the office of Health Secretary as an opportunity. After all, if he was moved into action in his last ministerial role, who is to say that he won’t be enthusiastic to improve the situation that he helped set into motion.