Is This the UK’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’ Moment?

(Boris Grdanoski/AP)

Shamed into action by the suffering of an epileptic child whose only relief came from cannabis oil, law enforcement and health authorities in the United Kingdom will begin an “unprecedented” review of the country’s longstanding drug policy, a government minister announced Tuesday.

Until now, British authorities had proven remarkably resistant to the legalization effort sweeping the United States, Canada, western Europe, and Israel. But just like in the United States—where a young girl with intractable epilepsy, Charlotte Figi, became the centerpiece of medical marijuana movement that helped turn the tide of public opinion—the UK’s resistance appears to be crumbling after a child with an otherwise incurable illness became cannabis reform’s public face.

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“I have now come to the conclusion that it is time to review the scheduling of cannabis,” UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Tuesday. His statement came just days after he reversed an earlier Home Office decision—and went against his country’s own drug laws—to issue an “emergency license” to use medical cannabis to Billy Caldwell, a 12-year-old boy with severe epilepsy.

“As a father, I know there is nothing worse than seeing your child suffer.”
Sajid Javid, UK Home Secretary

Caldwell had been receiving medical cannabis via his National Health Service doctor before authorities intervened. After that supply was cut off, he and his mother, Charlotte Caldwell, were forced to to fly overseas to access cannabis oil.

Upon their return to the United Kingdom, on June 11, their supply was confiscated by customs authorities. Later that day, Billy suffered his first seizure in more than a year.

His plight, as well as the public outcry after video of Billy’s seizure was posted online, “have shown that we need to look more closely at the use of cannabis-based medicine in the healthcare sector in the UK,” Javid said.

“As a father, I know there is nothing worse than seeing your child suffer,” he added. “You would do anything to take away their pain.”

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Billy’s path has followed almost precisely that cleared by Charlotte Figi, an American girl who lent her name to a high-CBD strain of cannabis called Charlotte’s Web. The strain is pharmacologically similar to high-CBD medications under development by various pharmaceutical companies—the leading example of which, a drug called Epidiolex, produced by British drugmaker GW Pharmaceuticals, may win FDA approval later this month.

Following then-5-year-old Figi’s appearance in a documentary in which Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon who serves as CNN’s chief medical correspondent, offered an apology for opposing medical-marijuana, legislatures in multiple states passed laws allowing citizens to use CBD oil under limited circumstances. Popular support for medical marijuana also soared to record levels.

Some drug-policy reform advocates have hailed Javid’s reversal as the “Berlin Wall moment” for marijuana-policy reform in the United Kingdom. But it remains to be seen whether the momentum from the Caldwell debacle will result in medical cannabis being legalized—and, if so, in what form, at what strength, and for whom.

The oil obtained by the Caldwells in Canada is a high-CBD, low-THC mixture from Canadian licensed producer Tilray. With a CBD-to-THC ratio of 50-to-1, its psychoactivity is miniscule at most, but the product is nonetheless illegal in the United Kingdom because of its slight THC content. [Editor’s note: Tilray is owned by Privateer Holdings, which also owns Leafly.]

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CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of at least 113 compounds found in the cannabis plant. Owing to its value as an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotectant—and its uselessness as a recreational drug—its popularity as a medicine has soared in recent years. Even the World Health Organization has offered a tepid endorsement, noting CBD’s possible “therapeutic benefits.”

However, as scientists, patients, and advocates contend, THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid, also has medical value for pain management, can help stimulate appetite and encourage sleep, and—according to some very preliminary research—could even discourage the growth of cancer cells.

“THCA and derivatives are illegal—unless you are Billy Caldwell right now!” noted Clark French, the founder and executive director of the United Patients Alliance, the UK’s leading medical-cannabis advocacy group.

French himself suffers from multiple sclerosis and has repeatedly argued that he needs cannabis with a significant amount of THC in order to manage his pain.

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But legalizing that type of cannabis may be a much harder lift. In his statement to Parliament on Tuesday, Javid hit many of the notes all too familiar to Americans impatient with the pace of reform.

The review of scientific data, led by Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies, and a possible accompanying rescheduling recommendation, “is in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use,” he said.

“We will not set a dangerous precedent or weaken our ability to keep dangerous drugs off our streets,” he added, repeating familiar prohibitionist lines about cannabis’s potential to “harm people’s mental and physical health, and damage communities.”

Those lines, too, are familiar to Americans—as are the consequences.

In some states, medical marijuana is available only to epileptic children, and not sufferers of chronic pain. In others, medical cannabis is so tightly controlled that it is nearly unobtainable. For patients who live hours away from the nearest dispensary, can’t find the proper formulation, or simply lack the ability to pay, the situation can push them to patronize the black market.

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Comparisons between the US and UK are always imperfect. In the US, with few exceptions, marijuana policy reform has come through voter initiatives in individual states. In the UK, however, drug policy is set in London, by lawmakers in Parliament.

For now, at least, Britain is following America’s lead.

Charlotte Caldwell and the organization helping her with an ongoing media campaign, Billy’s Buds, could have been discreet. Rather than inform the media of her return trip to the UK, she could have hidden the fact that she was smuggling cannabis oil. That would’ve made it less likely for the cannabis oil to be seized, but it would’ve also missed out on an opportunity to open the floodgates.

In the end, both happened. The government stuck to protocol and took away Billy’s cannabis oil—and then it admitted its own laws were flawed and reversed course once the avalanche of public umbrage hit.

Much more will need to happen before others in the UK can freely access cannabis—and much more on top of that before there are Los Angeles-style dispensaries in London. But it’s a familiar first step, and a positive one.

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