PM appears to be at odds with health secretary, who says government has not got law right on medicinal use of substance
Theresa May appears at odds with senior cabinet ministers after playing down the prospect of a full-scale review into the medical use of cannabis oil, despite Jeremy Hunt admitting that the government had not got the law right.
The health secretary said he backed the use of the substance and called for a swift legal review after an emergency licence was provided to Billy Caldwell, a boy with severe epilepsy whose medication had been confiscated.
Cabinet sources revealed that the prime minister had overruled the home secretary, Sajid Javid, when he told her that it was “absolutely urgent” that the matter should be discussed at Monday’s cabinet meeting.
With Labour saying that it would legalise the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes, the Guardian understands that there is now substantial cabinet support for a change in the law following calls from a growing coalition of MPs, experts, campaigners and families whose children have severe epilepsy.
One cabinet minister told the Guardian: “Sajid said that it was absolutely urgent, it’s moving very fast. But Theresa said this is not what this meeting is about. There’s quite a lot of support for changing the rules on it as well. It’s all quite hot to handle.”
Hopes of a change in the law had been raised after Hunt said on Monday that a review had been launched by the home secretary into the matter and would be concluded “as quickly as we possibly can”.
The Home Office was unable to immediately confirm whether a review was in fact taking place and May’s official spokesman appeared to distance the prime minister from the idea. Departmental sources confirmed only that a review was under consideration.
The Home Office minister Nick Hurd told MPs, in response to an urgent question, that his department had asked the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to set up an expert panel to advise on individual cases when medicinal cannabis products should be allowed.
The prime minister, asked about the issue after a speech on NHS funding in London, said only that the option already existed to provide licences for the medical use of cannabis on the basis of clinical advice.
“Do we need to look at these cases and consider what we’ve got in place? Yes,” she said. “But what needs to drive us in all these cases has to be what clinicians are saying about these issues. 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.”
Earlier, May’s official spokesman said: “[Jeremy Hunt] said we have to look at the law and the clinical evidence. That’s obviously something we’re alive to, but equally going forward any decisions will have to be made on the basis of clinical evidence and how to provide the best treatment.”
In a further sign of the pressure on May to change her stance on cannabis, the former Tory foreign secretary and party leader William Hague urged the prime minister to consider following the example of Canada, which is on the verge of legalising the drug for recreational use.
Lord Hague said the war on the drug had been “comprehensively lost”, telling the Daily Telegraph: “Cannabis is ubiquitous, and issuing orders to the police to defeat its use is about as up to date and relevant as asking the army to recover the empire.”
Javid intervened over the weekend on the grounds of urgent medical need to grant a 20-day licence for Billy to be treated with cannabis oil after he suffered seizures following the confiscation at Heathrow airport of supplies brought by his mother from Canada.
Billy began using the oil in 2016 after it was prescribed by his doctor in Northern Ireland. The substance is banned in the UK because it contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive constituent of cannabis.
Labour MP Andy McDonald, whose son Rory died aged 16 in 2006 after suffering an epileptic seizure in the night, said he had written to Javid calling for a blanket exemption on the use of cannabis oil to alleviate the illness.
McDonald said he wondered if cannabis oil could have saved Rory. “Look, listen to the medics, listen to the doctors,” he said. “And if they say this is working, don’t put anything in the way of bringing about that relief.”
Charlotte Caldwell, Billy’s mother,called on the government to swiftly provide access to cannabis medicine to the many other families who have children “suffering beyond imagination”, following this “historic development”.
“I will demand that henceforth the health department, not the Home Office, takes responsibility for providing access to medicine for these incredibly sick children,” she said, after Billy was discharged from hospital on Monday.
Hunt conceded that the UK had not got the law right on the oil, which is legal in many other countries, including Canada, the US and several EU states. When asked whether children such as Billy should be allowed to get it legally, he told ITV: “Yes.”
The health secretary told the BBC that Javid had acted “extremely decisively” in the case, adding: “I don’t think anyone who followed that story could sensibly say that we are getting the law on this kind of thing right.”
Challenged over whether the legal situation could remain unchanged for weeks or months, he said: “I sincerely hope not.”
Home Office sources played down the clash with the prime minister, claiming it was perfectly reasonable for her to consider the issue in depth before making a decision and suggesting she may have simply preferred to discuss it in private.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said the government had caused children extraordinary suffering with its approach. “This must not continue,” she said. “Labour in government will allow the legal prescription of cannabis oil for medical purposes. The government should stop being so heavy-handed and bureaucratic and put the welfare of children first.”
In response to the announcement that Billy could access medical cannabis, the mother of Alfie Dingley – who has been fighting to gain that right for her severely epileptic son – said: “The government now understand that for many people medical cannabis is a lifesaver.
“So it would be unconscionably cruel if the Home Office delay any further in issuing our medical team the licence they need to administer medical cannabis to our son Alfie,” said Hannah Deacon. “The time for process and bureaucracy has passed. As his parents, we demand action.”