Medical cannabis: Progress seems to be faltering – Christine Jardine

Medical cannabis can help those who suffer from repeated seizures like children Murray Gray and Alfie Dingley, but progress in enabling its widespread use has been depressingly slow, writes Christine Jardine.

It was one of the few rays of hope last winter in an otherwise bleak political landscape.

The Home Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that medicinal cannabis would be available on the NHS in the United Kingdom.

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At the time, it seemed like the best possible Christmas present for those parents – among them my constituent Karen Gray – who had campaigned for the medication for their children.

Relentless pressure in the Commons and in the media had persuaded the Government that knowing a medication could potentially end the suffering of hundreds of people, while denying them access to it, was wrong.

Cruel was the word many had used.

But now children like Alfie Dingley and my consituent Murray Gray, who suffer from forms of epilepsy which cause, at times, hundreds of seizures over the course of a day, would have relief from the conditions which blighted their lives.

Action was immediate.

Alfie received the first long-term licence in this country for the personal use of medical cannabis.

The product he is prescribed contains two main components, CBD and THC. It is believed that this combination works effectively due to the entourage effect of the CBD and THC working together.

Alfie used to have up to 150 seizures a month, each life threatening.

He is now virtually seizure free.

It was what campaigners had predicted and seemed to confirm that a major breakthrough had been made for so many people.

Hundreds of parents whose children have similar conditions, and many more people with chronic pain from things like arthritis and multiple sclerosis could now see some hope ahead.

Or so we thought.

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Five months later we find that very little has actually changed.

Only what has been described as a relative ‘handful’ of prescriptions have been approved – 80 on purely compassionate grounds.

Then last week one desperate mother, Emma Appleby, who had travelled to Holland to have a prescription filled for her daughter Teagan, was arrested on her return to this country.

So what has gone wrong?

What has happened to the assurances from both the Home Secretary and Health Secretary Matt Hancock?

There are now almost 100 specialists approved to prescribe the medication but patients up and down the country are reporting doctors reluctant to provide it because of their unhappiness with the process and guidelines.

Consultants are, perhaps understandably, uncomfortable with the prospect of providing patients with drugs they do not have sufficient reassurances over.

In the Commons last week, Matt Hancock was asked to account for this failure and, to be fair to the Health Secretary, he seemed as frustrated as the rest of us.

MP after MP rose to ask why, although medicinal cannabis compounds are now legal, their constituents are being refused it.

Clinical trials, we were told, would be needed to assess what the risks might be, and to ensure that it is safe to prescribe.

You could almost see the huge gulf that has opened up between what the Government promised and what has been possible.

And while none of us would want to see medicines freely available that have not been checked for their side-effects or long-term safety, there are a number of glaring contradictions that surely should be addressed.

Why when precisely those drugs at the centre of the issue are available in Germany, Holland and some US states, to name but a few, is that medical evidence apparently not sufficient for us?

Do we think that those countries have lower standards, or care less, for their children than we do?

The issues surrounding licensing of drugs are not new information for this, or any other, government so how has it got its ministers and the medical profession trapped in this Catch 22? Again those who are already suffering are the main victims.

It is tempting to blame incompetence. Certainly nobody is suggesting that one minister simply took the opportunity to pass the buck by legalising a drug that would then be the Health Secretary’s problem. No.

Both ministers appear genuine in their empathy with the problem and desire to see a solution.

Unfortunately, that will not be enough.

While the medical profession continues to wrangle with the inherent difficulties, people continue to suffer.

Emma Appleby is not, I am confident, the only parent who has resorted to the expensive and risky course of taking their child abroad for private treatment and medication.

In her position, watching my child suffer, knowing a potential solution is out there, I am not sure that I would not do exactly the same.

It is not just ridiculous, it is inhumane, that we put anyone in that position.

One potential source of relief has come from the suggestion that all those of us with constituents who find themselves caught in the dilemma should pass their details to the Secretary of State for Health.

It is also possible that special licenses can be offered in individual cases on compassionate grounds.

Let us just keep our fingers crossed that this ray of hope does not turn out to be another false one.