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Cannabis: Medicinal Use

Volume 792: debated on Monday 16 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the case for permitting the use of cannabis oil on prescription.

My Lords, on 19 June the Home Secretary announced a two-part review into the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Part 1, which is now complete, reported on the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of cannabis-related medicinal products. Part 2 will provide an assessment, based on the balance of harms and public health needs, on whether cannabis and cannabis-related products should be rescheduled.

My Lords, is it correct that no more than five people have so far applied for licences for medicinal cannabis; that the cost to hospital trusts of a licence is over £3,000 per patient; and that patients currently have to establish that cannabis treatment is a last resort for them but which has already been shown to work—something which requires them to travel abroad where access to the drugs is legal? Is this not simply quite wrong, when there are about 20,000 children in this country suffering uncontrolled epileptic seizures and who do not respond to the medication currently prescribed? Does the Minister agree that no parent should have to break the law to keep their children alive, and that cannabis medicines should be available on prescription as soon as possible?

On whether no more than five people have applied, the noble Lord is absolutely right that not many people have done so. The panel as currently constituted is making those sorts of decisions on the back of some very urgent cases. Over a longer period, the ACMD will report to the Government on whether cannabis should be rescheduled. Of course, Dame Sally Davies has already made her interim pronouncement on 3 July. On the question of parents travelling abroad to get their children medicine, the noble Lord is absolutely right, and that is why the Government are doing exactly what we are doing: we do not want children to have to travel abroad with their parents and we are acting now in the best interests of those children.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on instituting these reviews, and I congratulate Professor Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, for making very clear in correspondence with me that she believes that cannabis needs urgently to be rescheduled—she did not use those words, but it was very clear what she meant. In view of the clarity now that cannabis has quite remarkable medical qualities for certainly a number of people with epilepsy, severe pain and so on, is any consideration being given to moving medical cannabis from the Home Office to the Department of Health so that there is clinical leadership in the decisions on this matter?

There is not, and that is because of some of the harms associated with drugs. Yes, Dame Sally Davies made her position quite clear, but of course we work closely with our health partners. In the last few weeks, the noble Baroness will have seen the way in which clinicians and medically based evidence were used to arrive at some of the decisions that were made.

My Lords, how many people have been prosecuted and convicted in the past five years for the possession or growing of cannabis for medical purposes? If the Government realise that they have been in the wrong on this, will those people get unconditional pardons?

I think the noble Baroness is deliberately conflating two different things—judging by the smile on her face, she is. We are talking about the medicinal use of cannabis, and she is talking about possession, which are two entirely different things. She knows that. Cannabis was the most commonly used drug in 2016. About 2.2 million adults aged 16 to 59 have used it, but I cannot give her the possession figures. I can tell her that there were nearly 100,000 seizures of the drug in 2016-17.

My Lords, will my noble friend deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, which I have also heard on the media? In order to get access to this drug, there is a condition that you need to establish its efficacy. Is that not a Catch-22 situation? If the Government’s position is that people should not have to go abroad, how can they possibly meet the required test?

My noble friend will know that international evidence, as well as the limited evidence here, is drawn on. I hope that that answers the questions of both my noble friend and the noble Lord.

The Government have said that they have no plans to decriminalise cannabis for recreational use, but according to press reports at the weekend, there was a fall in the number of people prosecuted for possession of cannabis last year, compared with 2015, of 19%, and a 34% fall in the number of cautions for possession of cannabis issued by the police over the same period. In the absence of any credible evidence that the use of cannabis for recreational purposes has recently declined sharply, is chief constables deciding, for whatever reason, not to pursue cases of possession of cannabis to anything like the same level as even two years ago really an operational decision for them, as opposed to a strategic or policy decision that should be taken by elected police and crime commissioners or the Home Secretary?

It is of course up to PCCs to decide the policy priorities for their local areas, and of course those will be different in different areas depending on the prevalence of drug use. The noble Lord is right that the numbers have dropped, but—and I see this, depressingly, in Manchester—the use of synthetic cannabinoids is rife in some cities.

My Lords, I am afraid that I am still confused, even after the noble Baroness’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. As I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, if a family wants to be one of those permitted to use cannabis-based medicines in this country, it must prove efficacy, but because they are not already scheduled and licensed for such use, in order to do so the family must go abroad to take those medicines. The noble Baroness herself said in her answer that it was quite inappropriate that families should have to go abroad.

There are two things here—and this will be third time lucky, maybe. If a family has to go abroad to get medicines, we still would wish to be sure of a medicine’s safety. So it is absolutely right that we would go through a process based on medical evidence on the safety of a drug. What we have seen in the last few weeks has actually been a short-term fix to what we need to sort out: the long-term problem and the solution of providing the appropriate drugs to these children for their conditions.