Review of law on medical use of cannabis oil must be swift, says Jeremy Hunt

Charlotte Caldwell says cannabis oil helps her son Billy’s epilepsy (Yui Mok/PA) Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he hopes that a review of the law on the medicinal use of cannabis oil can be completed within months.

Mr Hunt accepted that the UK has not got the law right on the oil, which is illegal in Britain but available elsewhere.

He was speaking after Home Secretary Sajid Javid intervened at the weekend to provide a 20-day licence allowing 12-year-old Billy Caldwell to be treated with cannabis oil for his epilepsy.

Billy began using the banned substance in 2016 to control his seizures. But his latest supply was confiscated at Heathrow Airport last Monday as his mother Charlotte attempted to bring it back from Canada.

Mr Hunt said Mr Javid had acted “extremely decisively” after Billy was admitted to hospital and was now reviewing the law on cannabis oil.

The Health Secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think anyone who followed that story could sensibly say that we are getting the law on this kind of thing right.

“I think everyone feels for the lady concerned, and of course there are many, many other people in that situation.”

Mr Hunt said Mr Javid would complete his review of the law “as quickly as he can”.

Challenged over whether the legal situation could remain unchanged for weeks or months, he replied: “I sincerely hope not.”

“We have to do something, we have to do it quickly,” said the Health Secretary. “I think it is unfair to say Sajid didn’t act quickly in the situation. He has released that oil for that child.

“We are going to go through this process as quickly as we possibly can, because, like everyone, we think these stories are totally heartbreaking.

“The Home Office are not dragging their feet on this. The Home Secretary has said he will review this issue.”

He added: “It does take time, because we’ve got to not only look at the law, we’ve got to look at the clinical evidence and make sure there are no unintended consequences.

“But I think we all know that we need to find a different way.”

Dan Poulter, a Conservative former health minister who has supported the Caldwells, said a change in legislation would be simple.

He said: “In my view, a simple tweak to the law should enable the prescription of medicinal cannabis by doctors and I will now be working with my parliamentary colleagues to look at moving control away from the Home Office to the Department of Health.”

Dr Poulter, MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, also said he was optimistic that the Government would return the remaining six bottles confiscated at Heathrow Airport on June 11.

“Although Billy has so far only been given one bottle of his medication, I am hopeful that the Home Office will continue to show compassion towards Billy, and allow the return of the remainder of his anti-epilepsy medication,” he said.

Ms Caldwell, 50, of Castlederg in Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland, has offered to meet Mr Javid and Mr Hunt to discuss the medical needs of her son and others with similar problems.

She credits the oil with keeping Billy’s seizures at bay, saying he was seizure-free for more than 300 days while using it, but it contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is restricted in the UK.

Speaking before Mr Hunt’s comments, Ms Caldwell told Today that if she had a meeting with the Health Secretary and Home Secretary, she would tell them that “never again should someone in Billy’s position be exposed to Home Office paperwork rather than medical treatment”.

She said: “I would urge them to commit to an urgent review that will enable families across the UK to have urgent access to medicinal cannabis for their children.”

Ms Caldwell said Billy is able to eat again following the resumption of his treatment, but the last few days, when his seizures had escalated, had been “absolutely horrendous”.

“I would never, ever want any family to endure what our family – and, more importantly, Billy – has endured,” she said

“Every seizure is horrific for a mummy to watch, because I am very aware that one seizure can kill him.”

Another Northern Irish mother of a child with epilepsy said her daughter was at risk of death without the banned treatment.

Danielle Davis, from Newtownards, said medical cannabis treatment, which six-year-old Sophia received in the Netherlands, had made her “a totally different child”.

“I had never seen my daughter like that before,” she told Today. “I’ve only ever known Sophia seizuring all the time.

“Her personality, her character. She regained a gleam in her eye that we hadn’t seen before. The medication worked wonders, there was a significant reduction in seizures.

“Sophia definitely needs whole-plant medicinal cannabis with THC. If Sophia doesn’t have this and her seizures continue, we could be visiting a headstone. No parent wants to think that their child will die before them, and that’s why we’ve been fighting so hard.

“We definitely need it now. We can’t keep going down this route of uncertainty and people not knowing exactly what paperwork we need to fill out.

“I honestly pray to God that it is not too late. That would be heartbreaking if it took so long to sign off on something that my daughter’s life is taken.”

Former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg said that ministers’ resistance to legalising medicinal cannabis was based on “prejudice”.

He said: “It is pathetic – and I saw it for myself in Government – this bone-headed triumph of prejudice over evidence. The active substance in these cannabis-derived medicines is less harmful than stuff you can get across the counter from a chemist.

“When I was in Government, I certainly couldn’t get Theresa May and the Home Office and indeed other parts of the Government to just address the evidence.

“That poor mother is finding herself in this heartbreaking situation because politicians can’t separate off the issue of medicinal cannabis to help her child from their wider prejudice about drugs generally.”