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Drugs: Cannabis

Volume 762: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to reschedule cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 to enable its use for medicinal purposes.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to reschedule cannabis. There is clear scientific evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health, and which can have a pernicious effect upon communities. We will not undermine our continuing efforts to reduce drug harms or circumvent the regulatory process by which drugs are assessed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for their safety and efficacy as medicines.

My Lords, nine European countries, including Germany and Italy, as well as many other countries across the world, provide access to medicinal cannabis for patients who really need it, while some 30,000 people in this country risk a criminal record in order to take medicines based on cannabis that they need to alleviate their pain and suffering. Will the Minister agree to look at and consider the human rights aspect of UK policy, and will he make the findings of that assessment available to your Lordships in the Library?

The noble Baroness has a long-held position on these issues in terms of her role in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform. Obviously that is a respectable position but it is not one that is shared by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the Home Office on drugs misuse. The council’s view is that the case is not made. Where there are derivatives from cannabis, as has recently been the case, applications can be made to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. In fact, in one particular case, which is that of Sativex, the licence to market has actually been granted.

Is the Minister aware that, in 2000, your Lordships’ Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I was then a member, conducted a major investigation into the potential medical benefits of cannabis preparations and cannabis itself. We were satisfied that smoking cannabis was just as dangerous in causing cancer as smoking tobacco, if not more so. Nevertheless, we received substantial anecdotal evidence of benefits from cannabis ingestion in a variety of medical conditions. Subsequently, a company called GW Pharmaceuticals produced a wholly standardised cannabis-based preparation. That was subjected to some very convincing clinical trials which led to it being licensed by the MHRA in 2010 for the treatment of spasms and spasticity in multiple sclerosis. That is now the case, but the evidence is growing that various cannabinoids may also be of benefit. Would not the reschedule recommended by my noble friend Lady Meacher help to expedite additional trials and lead to the beneficial effects of cannabis being more available for medical conditions?

The noble Lord is absolutely right in tracing this back to a long debate in the Select Committee, the work of which I pay tribute to. That was, of course, taken into account in the MHRA’s decision. Should there be new drugs of this classification which have proven benefits for patients, they should, of course, make an application and undergo clinical trials in the same way.

My Lords, although I do not accept the need to legislate for cannabis, the evidence from America—particularly from Colorado, which has recently legislated for its use—shows that the use of medical marijuana may well be of benefit to soldiers and veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, and nightmares in particular. If the evidence proves to be robust, there is a case for clinical trials to be undertaken in this country to see if that actually is of benefit because we have many troops who have come back from Afghanistan and suffer from these conditions.

My noble friend and other noble Lords are experts in the medical world, and I am realising very quickly that the problem is that there are many different types of medical research and science, some bits of which are contradictory. For example, the Institute of Psychiatry and Cancer Research have taken a different view on this. That is why we need to have a process which clearly and openly evaluates the introduction of these drugs, primarily to ensure that people are kept safe.

My Lords, in continuing to list cannabis in Schedule 1, on the basis that it is a drug of extremely limited medicinal value, are the Government not flying in the face of much academic and expert medical opinion, contrary to the principle of basing policy on scientific evidence just enunciated by his noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble? Why should patients who have been prescribed a cannabis-based medication, because nothing else relieves their chronic pain so effectively, be obliged to make repeated trips—at heavy cost in cash, stress and fatigue—to Holland to collect it, when under a sensible and humane regime they would be able to pick it up at a local pharmacy in their own country?

Part of the argument here is that one of the reasons why Sativex is not widely prescribed, although it has been licensed for marketing, is that general practitioners believe that there are other drugs which are more effective in tackling the issues it is meant to deal with. That is a point for debate, but we are acting on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and abiding by the decisions of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. It would be a derogation of duty for the Government to do anything other than that.

My Lords, will the Minister please confirm that the drug he mentioned in answer to a previous Question is no longer approved by NICE? Does he agree that it is slightly disingenuous of him to suggest that a cannabis-based product is widely available in this country?

It is not that the drug is no longer approved; it was never approved by NICE. It has been licensed for marketing and is available on private prescription in England. In Wales, it is available on prescription. People are still evaluating its performance. NICE’s view was that alternatives are available which are more cost effective and more effective in their treatment outcomes. That is a decision for it.

My Lords, is it not the case that some people suffering from MS who feel that they have a need for cannabis can manage only to get skunk—which is pretty dangerous—through their own means? Would it not be better if people suffering from MS had access to a safer form of cannabis, such as is suggested in the Question, rather than having to resort to the stuff that is more easily available?

That is the case. Where safer drugs are available, a licence should be applied for from the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. If they are safe and effective, they will be licensed for use in the UK.