What does it take for a bunch of bureaucrats to overcome the prejudice that clouds their capacity for empathy and reason? Is it a mother so desperate to alleviate her child’s suffering she makes a 7,000-mile round trip to buy the only thing that offers him some relief? Or is it a child whose seizures are so severe he could die any day? Maybe it’s a panel of doctors who stand in front of lawmakers and tell them there is evidence: cannabis oil works.
The case of Billy Caldwell has shown a step forward in the government’s approach to cannabis. Home secretary Sajid Javid has announced a review into the drug for medicinal purposes, while William Hague has gone one step further and suggested the drug should be decriminalised altogether. Interestingly, Theresa May seems to be distancing herself from the whole thing. In a comment last week she acknowledged the need to look at individual cases, but also seemed to cautiously defend the current laws on cannabis oil, saying: “There’s a very good reason why we’ve got a set of rules around cannabis and other drugs, because of the impact that they have on people’s lives, and we must never forget that.” Her spokesperson also confirmed the PM has never used cannabis. No surprises there.
The strong will of parents whose children have been forced to suffer unnecessarily seems to have knocked some sense into some ministers, including health secretary Jeremy Hunt, but it really is about time. For some who have watched sick family members deteriorate when cannabis oil might have helped relieve their symptoms, the review will be too little, too late.
One argument put forward by those who oppose cannabis oil is that the active ingredient THC carries a risk of side-effects. But for many people on conventional medication, side-effects are something they have to live with every day. Many women on the contraceptive pill experience depression and mood changes; people on beta blockers often report feeling spaced out, dizzy and fatigued; steroids can lead to blurred vision and glaucoma. No drug comes without risks, and in the case of Billy Caldwell, whose epilepsy is so severe he suffers up to 100 seizures per day, the benefits swamp the potential dangers by far.
Earlier this year I reported on the subject of antidepressants for this magazine. During my research I interviewed a number of people who felt their GPs had tried to force antidepressants onto them when they didn’t feel that they needed them, namely the SSRI citalopram. Known side-effects of the drug include insomnia, drowsiness and suicidal thoughts, yet GPs are still prescribing citalopram to treat depression and anxiety, because for many people the positive effects of the drug outweigh the negatives. The same approach should be applied in the case of cannabis oil.
The next few weeks will prove crucial for parents such as Charlotte Caldwell, who watched her son’s condition rapidly deteriorate before the Home Office granted a 20-day licence for medics to use the oil. What will happen once the 20 days is over still remains unclear.
The question facing ministers is this: do we continue to allow children to suffer for the sake of procedural correctness, or do we create a new policy based on the advice of experts, putting the wellbeing of millions of sick people first? Let’s hope they do the right thing.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy