CONSERVATIVE MPs have blocked efforts to boost UK medical cannabis access with the Government saying the existing legislation is sufficient.
With just three prescriptions written under the National Health Service system in the three years, since the law changed, even the most temperate of observers will find that scarcely credible.
Emotions are running much higher with patients and families advocating improved access – some of whom are saying more than a £1,000 a month to secure privately-prescribed medicines.
In drafting his Medical Cannabis Access Bill Jeff Smith Labour MP for Withington, Manchester had hoped to allow GPs, who are generally more supportive of cannabis medicines, to be prescribers, too.
It called for the creation of Commission on Cannabis-Based Medicines to implement ‘measures to overcome barriers to access, and for greater emphasis to be given to observational trial evidence on efficacy.
However, at 2.30pm yesterday, almost five hours after the Second Reading of the bill had begun, the debate was brought a halt without a vote, meaning the legislation had been successfully ‘talked out’ by Conservative backbenchers.
This has been roundly condemned by those boost access to cannabis medicines through the NHS.
Speaking to BusinessCann, one of the UK’s leading medical cannabis experts, Prof Mike Barnes said: “This was an excellent debate. Sensible, intelligent and whilst modest in its aims would have made a real difference.
“Jeff Smith’s knowledge was so impressive. Sadly it was talked out as expected. The minister’s reply was a masterclass in algorithm-derived mediocrity.
“We know the present government is morally bereft – fortunately not the majority of sensible back bench Tory MPs – but now we know that they don’t care even about the lives of small children with epilepsy.
“They need to stop hiding behind the tired mantra of ‘we have changed the law now it’s up to the doctors’. Yes, in part it is, but there is so much more that the Government can do.”
During the debate Labour MP Andy McDonald, one of the bill’s strongest proponents and long-standing advocate for medical cannabis, said that while he had felt disheartened numerous times during his political career, he ‘couldn’t remember feeling as low as I do right now’, adding that the rhetoric surrounding the debate ‘filled him with horror’.
Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, said she had been informed to ‘talk all she wanted, because they’re going to talk it out anyway’.
Mr Smith opened the debate by saying the situation has gone on ‘too long’. “Significant numbers of people who would benefit from being prescribed medical cannabis on the NHS aren’t able to get the prescriptions that they need….families of patients in the most urgent need often have to resort to support from crowdfunding or from individual donors to keep their medicine going.”
In response to a BusinessCann request from some comments on its position a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson, said: “Our sympathies are with all patients and families dealing with rare and hard to treat conditions.
“The government has already changed the law to allow specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-based products, where clinically appropriate and in the best interests of patients.
“We are working closely with regulatory, research and NHS partners to establish clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of more cannabis-based products for medicinal use to inform future NHS funding decisions.”
During the debate Conservative backbenchers laid out their opposition to the bill.
Conservative MP for South Ribble Katherine Fletcher said that the government was ‘not remotely qualified’ to weigh-in on decisions which should be made by doctors.
She added that currently there was ‘not the evidence base to say if (medical cannabis) works’, adding that ‘trial and error can lead to big problems’, citing comparisons with the Thalidomide.
Mr Smith retorted that comparing medical cannabis with Thalidomide was an ‘unfair comparison’.
However, Conservative MP Dr Kieran Mullan, who made one of the debates longest speeches, made repeated references to ‘times we have gotten it wrong’.
He added that it was ‘inappropriate to use primary legislation’ to inform clinical decisions, and that singling out a single medication like medical cannabis would threaten to undermine the well-established mechanisms designed to negate risk.
One of the overriding themes, repeatedly referenced by Conservative MP for Hastings Sally-Ann Hart, was that it was down to the drug manufacturers to help fund and put forward their drugs for clinical testing.
She said it was not for the government to ‘force the hand of companies to bring forward research’ and that regulators were ‘waiting for these companies to come forward with funding and research’.
In her speech, which lasted over 50 minutes, Ms Hart also said that there was a danger of people abusing medical cannabis access for recreational purposes.
Mr Smith questioned ‘where the evidence for this was’, adding that it was a ‘red herring that shouldn’t have been thrown in.’
Private Members’ Bills
Private Members’ Bills like this are debated in ‘Second Readings’ on 13 Fridays throughout the year. If they are the first bill on the ballot, as the bill was yesterday, they have a ‘full day’ – 9.30am to 2.30pm – to be debated in the house.
If no vote is called on the bill before 2.30pm, the MP will be asked to name another day to continue the debate. In this instance, it is Friday, January 14.
However, unless the bill is the first on the Order Paper on this day, the bill is unlikely to progress further. It is as yet unclear whether the bill will be revisited in January.
What happens next? Prof Barnes added: “We keep going and eventually the tidal wave of medicinal cannabis will reach the government’s shore.”