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Medical Cannabis Under Prescription

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:47 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 7:47 pm, 20th May 2019

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I have a briefing from the MS Society that illustrates his point. It says that, since Thursday 1 November 2018,

“Nobody with MS has so far benefitted from the change in the law, and access to cannabis-based medicinal products remains very limited. This includes access to Sativex”.

Sativex is a licensed product. Of course, people can get it privately if they can spare £500 a month.

As I have said, the system is cruel and heartless. Let us look at one example of how stupid our current laws are and how damaging they are to the patients we are supposed to be helping. If a child suffers from certain forms of epilepsy, there is good evidence that a cannabis-based medicine called Bedrolite may be of great help. Any parent or guardian in that situation would want to access Bedrolite. I know of one child who was having 16 seizures a day and is now on Bedrolite. As of today, that child has been free of seizures for 50 days. Can we begin to imagine how great that is for the child and for his surrounding family and friends? But his supply is running out and his mother said to me yesterday, “I can’t let my boy get sick again.” What has she got to do to keep her boy well?

The good news is that people in the UK can get Bedrolite—if they are rich, if they fundraise, or if they go to a private clinic, pay for a prescription and then pay £560 per bottle. For one patient I know, that equates to £28,000 a year. And that is not the most expensive case I know of—not by a long way. I know of cases where it would cost people twice that much to medicate their children. If people are prepared to break the law to provide medicine for their child, they can travel to the Netherlands and purchase Bedrolite for £167 a bottle, reducing the annual cost to £8,100 a year, plus travel and accommodation costs, but those people risk being arrested and separated from the child they are trying to help.

I know of a wee boy in Scotland whose mum has brought back oils illegally from the Netherlands. He recently went through a bad spell of cluster seizures. Normally, he would be in hospital, unconscious, and unable to walk, eat, speak or swallow. This time, he has remained at home and has not needed any rescue medication. His mother should not have to pay thousands of pounds a month and break the law trying to help her sick child. It is no wonder that the scammers have moved into this marketplace. As a parent wrote to me yesterday to explain,

“The vultures are praying on very vulnerable desperate families and selling fake or non filtered oils which is unsupported and also very dangerous”.

This highlights another problem. When we sit back and do nothing, scammers and criminals will move in. People will say, “I’m buying a product that is cannabis, but it’s not doing me any good.” Then the Government will take another step back and say, “Well, the evidence simply is not there.”

People’s last option is to do what the Government have said they should do. To access medical cannabis, someone must have tried medical cannabis and experienced benefits, but, as I have pointed out, that involves either a lot of money or breaking the law. That is what the Government are asking parents to do. A person must have exhausted all other drugs, despite knowing they do not work and have many dangerous side effects; we are asking people to endure side effects and disappointment to justify their request. Once they have done that, they find that their GP cannot prescribe under the current system and that specialists are reluctant to do so because they are going out on a limb and fear reprisals from the medical community.

We have a situation where the UK Government say, “We have a system,” and absolve themselves of their responsibility and duty of care to the citizens of the United Kingdom. I was going to ask the Minister explain why we cannot treat any cannabis-based medical products as schedule 2 drugs under the statutory instrument where that product has been prescribed by a medical practitioner in another jurisdiction, but of course we have a Health Minister in front of us today, not a Home Office Minister. Yet again, this problem falls between two stools. The Home Office or the Department of Health and Social Care—who will take responsibility for this issue and move it forward?

While we delay, the privatised UK cannabis business grows and the privatised pharmaceutical companies are controlling the available products with an iron fist. It looks as though we are restricting the provision of medical cannabis while we evaluate a marketplace and develop products with the intention of making a lot of money out of it, but the Government would not be that cruel, would they? Not deliberately! The Government do not have a vested interest in the pharmaceutical industry, do they? They are not granting licences to their pals to grow cannabis or encouraging family members to invest in pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest, are they? Surely not. But of course, we know that they absolutely are. That is the backdrop to the photo opportunities and the sympathetic words of staged understanding from Ministers. Unless someone has a child living in these circumstances, they cannot possibly understand the need, the frustration and the anger. As politicians, we are elected to listen to the people. The parents and guardians of these young men and women are screaming at us, “Give us access to affordable, legal medication for our children, and do it now.”