World News

Stung by a Boy’s Suffering, UK Reviews Medical Marijuana Rules

Posted June 19, 2018 2:13 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Britain’s home secretary, Sajid Javid, ordered a review Tuesday of the nation’s policy on the medical use of marijuana, days after a 12-year-old’s cannabis-based epilepsy medicine was confiscated at Heathrow Airport, prompting a national discussion as the boy fought life-threatening seizures and politicians procrastinated.

The boy, Billy Caldwell, suffers from status epilepticus, a kind of seizure that can last for hours. When a seizure takes hold he sometimes starts to turn blue. And without treatment, one could be fatal. Over the weekend, Javid authorized the use of the medicine to treat him.

The spectacle of one boy’s agonizing battle against an inflexible bureaucracy has made Prime Minister Theresa May’s response look flat-footed, while prompting a wider debate about legalizing the drug itself for recreational use.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, William Hague, a former leader of May’s Conservative Party, argued that by retreating and allowing the cannabis oil to be used, the government had “implicitly conceded that the law has become indefensible.”

He cited the debate in Canada, where legalization of cannabis is close. “It should now be asked whether Britain should join the many other countries that permit medical-grade marijuana, or indeed join Canada in preparing for a lawful, regulated market in cannabis for recreational use as well,” he said.

And Hague, who once advocated a “zero tolerance” drugs policy, conceded that “as far as marijuana, or cannabis, is concerned any war has been comprehensively and irreversibly lost.” Ordering the police to defeat its use was, he wrote, like asking the British army to recover the country’s long-lost empire.

The call to legalize recreational cannabis use was rejected Tuesday by the government of May, a former home secretary who took a conventionally tough line on drugs during her six years in the job, and seems in no mood to slaughter that sacred cow.

Last week there was confusion over whether laws on medical use of cannabis were being reviewed and, according to British media reports, May blocked a discussion about it at her Cabinet on Monday.

But on Tuesday Javid told lawmakers that the current system “is not satisfactory for the patients, it is not satisfactory for the doctors and it is not satisfactory for me.”

Javid stressed that this was “in no way a first step to the legalization of cannabis for recreational use.”

Nevertheless, he announced that a special license would be granted for cannabis medication in another case that has embarrassed the government, that of Alfie Dingley, 6, who suffers up to 150 seizures a month.

One Conservative member of Parliament, Mike Penning, had threatened to lead a delegation of lawmakers to secure medical cannabis for the boy abroad, after a promise of help from May led to nothing after three months.

Heather Deacon, Alfie’s mother, told the BBC that she had believed May’s assurances after a meeting on March 20. “She looked at me. She met my son and she told me that they would find a way,” Deacon said.

“That was three months ago,” she added. “All that we have been put through is bureaucracy, hurdles — hurdles after hurdles after hurdles.”

Before Tuesday’s announcement, Javid’s decision to authorize temporary treatment for Billy had already been praised by his mother, Charlotte Caldwell.

After her son was discharged from the hospital Monday, Caldwell told the talk radio station LBC that “some heroes don’t wear capes,” but that Javid “stood up and was Billy’s hero.” She was less flattering about May, calling on her to “step up to the plate.”

“These kids are living 24 hours a day with life-threatening seizures,” she added. “Their lives are broken, their bodies are broken.”

The case captured headlines when the medicine was confiscated from Billy at Heathrow Airport on June 11, as she returned from Canada. Caldwell had flown there seeking supplies of the drug after the Home Office halted a prescription that her son had received from his doctor — a treatment she believed had kept him free of seizures for nearly 10 months.

In an earlier interview with the news website MailOnline, Caldwell was quoted describing her son’s seizures as “silent killers,” and added that one had lasted 7 1/2 hours. On Tuesday, there was a broad welcome for the review announced by Javid over medicinal use of cannabis, but less consensus on overall drug policy.

For years, British politicians have struggled to form a coherent set of policies around recreational cannabis use, which has involved around 6.6 percent of adults, about 2.2 million people, according to official statistics.

In 2002 cannabis was downgraded to a Class C drug, equivalent to steroids, removing the threat of arrest from those in possession of small quantities. But in 2008 it was restored to Class B status, which carries penalties for possession of up to five years in prison.

Writing in the Guardian, the commentator Simon Jenkins declared that cannabis was available in many schools and universities, clubs and festivals, and most British police forces “turn a blind eye to modest possession.” Billy was denied it, Jenkins argues, “because his drug is refined, safe and requires chemical preparation.”

On Tuesday in Parliament there seemed only limited support for the legalization of recreational cannabis use, although Norman Lamb, a lawmaker for the centrist Liberal Democrats, spoke about the “dreadful hypocrisy” of government policy.

“Probably most of the Cabinet drinks alcohol, the most dangerous drug of all,” he said, adding that he believed perhaps half the Cabinet had used cannabis recreationally.

Likewise Diane Abbott, the home affairs spokeswoman for Labour, the main opposition party, recalled comments by a former chairman of the government’s advisory committee on the misuse of drugs who argued that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal products.

But that advice was not popular among British politicians when it was proffered in 2009. The adviser, professor David Nutt, resigned soon afterward.