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Cannabis-based Medication

Volume 789: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will issue a special licence under Section 30 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to enable the family of Alfie Dingley to import cannabis-based medication to treat his epilepsy.

My Lords, the Government have a huge amount of sympathy for the rare and difficult situation that Alfie and his family are faced with. My right honourable friend the Policing Minister has undertaken to meet Alfie Dingley’s family as quickly as possible. Both he and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary want to explore every option within the current regulatory framework, including issuing a licence.

I express my sincere thanks to the Minister for that very positive reply. I understand from it that Ministers are now united in wanting to find a legal way to support Alfie Dingley so he can receive medical cannabis in order to lead some sort of life.

I want to set out the main reasons why Ministers have to succeed in this case. The Minister knows that Alfie Dingley was suffering from a very unusual epilepsy mutation. This was causing 3,000 epileptic fits a year, 250 a month, under UK-prescribed medication which will probably lead to psychosis, damage to his internal organs and early death. Alfie Dingley and his family spent five months in the Netherlands, where Alfie was treated by a neuro-paediatrician with cannabis drugs. During that period, Alfie Dingley suffered one or possibly two seizures per month, down from 250 per month in this country.

On the legal question, the Minister knows that under Section 30 of the 1971 Act, licences can be provided.

I express my profound thanks to the Minister and her colleagues in the other place for their absolute commitment to find a way under the law to enable this poor six year-old child to continue his life.

I thank the noble Baroness for her positive words acknowledging the way forward that I and other Ministers want to find for this little boy. As she said, this little boy has a very rare form of epilepsy. I am very pleased to hear that his seizures have reduced and very much look forward to a positive way forward being found.

My Lords, we know that the Government successfully licensed heroin-assisted treatment, or diamorphine-assisted treatment, which is prescribed in a synthetic form to people who do not benefit from or cannot tolerate substances such as methadone. We know that the success rates for that group of patients in terms of health, social care, incarceration and money saved show that there is real benefit from heroin-assisted treatment. Why cannot that simply be put in place for cannabis-based treatment as well?

With respect, I point out to the noble Lord that the Question is specifically about the medicinal use of cannabis for a very specific case. The noble Lord is probably straying on to the legalisation of drugs in a controlled way. I am not going there today because I have not been asked a question about it, but I have had many debates about it and the Government remain of the view that such drugs remain illegal.

I am grateful to the Minister for her commitment to explore every option. Is she aware of the legal opinion from Landmark Chambers making it clear that there is an exception under Section 30 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which allows that a licence for possession of a controlled drug can be permitted for medical purposes? Will she make use of that exception to save this little boy’s life?

Well, I hope that I made it absolutely clear that we would explore every legal avenue that we could, and that both the Policing Minister and the Home Secretary would look at all legal avenues within the regulatory framework, so I hope that she takes comfort from that.

Could my noble friend take a look at the history of how controlled drugs have been used for medical purposes? I am not somebody who would support deregulation of drugs but, as a small girl, I was offered the option when a school dentist extracted a tooth of having either gas or cocaine.

That was many years ago, but that was the choice. Of course, up and down the country today, hospitals will be dispensing opioid drugs to patients, many of which are derivatives of opium, and I really do not see why, if the legal framework is there to do it, we cannot get on and do it rather quickly.

My noble friend makes precisely the point that I perhaps did not make as well, which is that within the legal framework we have to explore the art of the possible to bring such drugs forward that will help people in situations similar to Alfie’s. Before I became a politician, I worked extensively with people who had multiple sclerosis, and I know that Sativex has been produced in aid of alleviating spasticity in suffers of that illness.

My Lords, can I move away from the sad case that we have heard about and those particular circumstances and move to a more general point on that issue? Does the Minister agree that the time has now come for a complete and urgent look at the situation? As many of us know, cannabis is currently included in Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Act as a drug with no medicinal value, yet that view has been roundly rebuffed by a number of countries in the world. I cite, for example, 12 EU countries—shortly that number will grow to 15—29 states in the USA, Canada, Israel and so on, all of which use cannabis under medical supervision. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will look at this issue and at the licensed medicinal use of cannabis in these circumstances?

The noble Lord has nicely segued through the general use of it back to the medicinal use, but I concur with him in saying that we must keep laws like this under review. Certainly, the WHO is currently reviewing cannabis as a whole, and the constituent parts of cannabis. The noble Lord is right that a number of states in the USA have actually legalised its use. We are keeping a very close eye on the outcome of that review and will take a view on it in due course.