Britain is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of cannabis for medical and scientific use. A report by the United Nations earlier this month found 95 tonnes of cannabis was legally produced in the UK in 2016, representing nearly 45 per cent of global production. This country was also the biggest exporter, responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world’s trade.
So it is perhaps strange that the authorities here have been so reluctant to allow this plant to be used to make medicines, despite growing evidence that they can help people with a number of conditions, such as severe epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, who do not respond to other forms of treatment.
It is a mentality rooted in the war against drugs, but it was always a strange one. After all, other powerful plant-based drugs, such as morphine, have been used in medicine for decades.
The temptation for people with such diseases has been to buy cannabis illegally from a criminal and then use it in the same way as those who take it recreationally by smoking it. This is obviously bad for them, whereas a properly formulated drug does not involve smoking, contains a standardised dose and does not necessarily involve a psycho-active effect.
The Scotsman today reports on the plight of five-year Murray Gray, who regularly has epileptic seizures. He has been taking several medicines, including steroids, but is still having seizures and there have been side-effects. His mother Karen has now launched a petition designed to persuade politicians to allow the medical use of cannabis-based CBD oil, which she believes could help him, on the NHS.
In England, the Home Office is considering allowing medical cannabis to be used to help a six-year-old boy, Alfie Dingley, who also has epilepsy, as part of a trial. He has been having cannabis treatment in the Netherlands, prescribed by a paediatric neurologist, which has coincided with a reduction in his seizures. Once he had up to 30 a day, but while taking the drug he went 27 days without having one.
Politicians seem to be finally realising they have been blinded to the potential medical uses by the illegal trade in the drug. It would be wrong to legalise recreational cannabis use, particularly given the evidence that excessive use can cause mental health problems. But that should not prevent scientists and doctors from developing useful medicines to help people who are suffering.