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Volume 789: debated on Monday 12 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have plans to revisit the inclusion of cannabis in Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, in the light of claims regarding its medicinal significance.

This is a bit like “Mastermind”, but on somebody else’s specialist subjects.

The World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence has committed to reviewing the scheduling of cannabis under the United Nations 1961 convention. This is due to consider the therapeutic use as well as dependence and the potential to abuse constituent parts of cannabis. This will be a key report to inform the Government’s position on this issue, which, as with any government policy, we will keep under review.

My Lords, when most of the western world recognises that cannabis has significant medicinal value, and when Germany recently legalised cannabis for no fewer than 57 indications, in the UK, which remains miles behind everybody else, we have cannabis in Schedule 1 and therefore defined as a dangerous drug with no—I underline no—medicinal value. Will the Minister work with his colleagues to bring this issue forward as a matter of urgency rather than waiting years for the WHO report—I know the WHO somewhat and it takes a little time? That would save the incredible suffering—I have met so many people suffering deeply—of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people up and down the country.

The noble Baroness is a long-standing campaigner for drugs reform. I listened to her exchange a few days ago with my noble friend Lady Williams on this very subject. When I saw officials last week, I pressed them hard on the medical advice. The professional advice of medical experts in this country is that cannabis in its raw form has no medicinal value, which is why it is a Schedule 1 drug and subject to strict controls. I am very reluctant as a layman to second-guess those officials. However, the noble Baroness referred last time to the moving case of Alfie Dingley. The Home Office will do all it can within the framework of the current legislation to ensure that Alfie gets the treatment he needs

My Lords, some 15 years ago, the Science and Technology Select Committee of which I was chairman at the time had a six-month inquiry on the medicinal uses of cannabis. We found and reported overwhelming evidence of the value of cannabis, that people taking cannabis did not get high on these drugs and that they were not dependent on the drug but it eased their symptoms, particularly with neurological conditions. As a result, we got at least one drug licensed for market. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that there is great urgency. It is 15 years, and it is about time the Government did something about this.

I will report back to the Home Office the strong views expressed by two noble Lords—I gather they are impatient and not anxious to wait for the outcome of the WHO review, which I think will be completed in 2019. Any decision will be evidence based. On the general use of cannabis, I note that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said in its last report that,

“cannabis is a significant public health issue. Cannabis can unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society”.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s acceptance that perhaps it should be a Health Minister standing at the Dispatch Box. Even so, is he aware that doctors in the UK are allowed to prescribe heroin to addicts in certain circumstances? How does he square that with the fact that they are not permitted to prescribe most effective cannabis medicines to patients in pain, even though these are available legally in many other countries? Is it not time that we stopped criminalising patients?

On the specific issue the noble Baroness raises, the Home Office would consider issuing a licence to enable trials of any new medicines, including cannabis, subject to appropriate ethical approvals. There is the possibility of a specific licence in the case that the noble Baroness raised and if necessary the normal 12 to 16-week timetable could be expedited.

My Lords, will the Minister encourage his ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to review the present policy of the department in relation to patients who have been prescribed dronabinol, the active ingredient in various pharmaceutical cannabinoid preparations, which requires that they travel abroad to obtain it, even though dronabinol is in Schedule 2 and is internationally recognised as having medicinal value? Why do the Government not allow these patients, who if they do not have their cannabis-based medication suffer chronic and severe pain, to collect their prescription from a local pharmacy instead of forcing them to make this exhausting and costly journey every three months?

I am very happy to respond to the noble Lord’s opening question, namely to pass his request on. We are guided in this country by the MHRA, the authority that advises government on whether medicines should have a licence.

My Lords, we have a vast number of drugs that are strictly controlled and regulated here in the UK. I have no wish to change the law in respect of the general use of cannabis but I think the noble Lord has heard from around the House that the Government should surely move on it with a bit more speed and look at whether there is a genuine case for the medical use of this drug. I have no idea what the answer is; I will listen to the medical professionals on that matter.

I agree with the noble Lord’s last sentence, that he will listen to the medical evidence. I say to noble Lords that I have listened to the exchanges over the last seven minutes and there is a clear view that we should try to make progress, not on legalising cannabis but on making it easier to prescribe cannabis in certain circumstances where it may have some therapeutic or beneficial value. I am very happy to take that message back to the Home Office and I hope that, next time, somebody more qualified than myself will be able to answer these questions.