Tomorrow, activists from all over the country will descend on Westminster to make their presence felt in the halls of power. Their reason? The (hopeful) second reading of Paul Flynn MP’s Private Members Bill, which would officially legalise the use of medical cannabis in the UK.
This is of course far from the first time that cannabis activists have protested in London. Every year, thousands gather in Hyde Park for the annual 4/20 event, whilst countless patients’ protests and smoke outs have been held outside Parliament, the BBC, and others – protests that have often been notable mainly for the total lack of impact they seemed to have made. This time, however, many on the front-line feel that something may just be different.
There are various reasons for this, but mostly the excitement has been heightened by events in the past few weeks which have thrust the issue of medical cannabis firmly into the public eye and which feel to many as if they are building to some kind of crescendo.
First and foremost, the story of Alfie Dingley, the six year old boy from Kenilworth, Warwickshire, has captured the hearts of many both inside the campaign and, more importantly, outside of the usual circles. Alfie suffers from an extremely rare form of epilepsy that at one point caused him to suffer 3,000 seizures and 48 hospital visits in a single year.
That equates to over 8 seizures per day, and a trip to hospital almost once a week. For anyone to suffer so badly is a tragedy, for it to happen to a child is heartbreaking.
Alfie’s story exploded into the public consciousness after his parents made an impassioned plea to the government to grant them a licence to use cannabis to help control his condition. This was not a shot in the dark on their part – they had already taken Alfie to The Netherlands to undergo treatment with cannabis oil. Whilst there, Alfie went 24 days without a single seizure. Without it, at his worst, he would have been expected to suffer around 190 seizures.
Incredibly, if unsurprisingly, the Home Office was unmoved. A spokesperson explained:
”Cannabis is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, as in its raw form it is not recognised in the UK as having any medicinal benefit and is therefore subject to strict control restrictions.
“This means it cannot be practically prescribed, administered, or supplied to the public in the UK, and can only be used for research under a Home Office licence.
“The Home Office would not issue a licence to enable the personal consumption of a Schedule 1 drug.”
In the past, this situation may have passed without any outcry. It is hardly unusual for the Home Office to deny cannabis’ medical efficacy, nor is it the first time that the parents of a sick child have been rebuffed in their attempts to gain access to medical cannabis through the ‘proper’ channels. This time, however, there was outrage. And it came not only from the public, but from MPs as well.
Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP for Reigate, tabled an urgent Commons debate on the issue which was attended by MPs from every major party, all of whom were in agreement that the decision to deny Alfie Dingley the right to use cannabis was out of step with the evidence and the will of the people.
“Heart of Stone”
Among them was Paul Flynn MP, who suggested that the Home Office have “a heart of stone,” and urged medical cannabis users to “…break the law, because the law in this case is an ass, and it is cruel and lacks compassion.”
He was joined by Carolyn Harris (Lab) who called for “…a review of the law, to look at how we can better support those living in chronic pain, those with long-term degenerative conditions and those in the final stages of life.”
Philip Hollobone (Con) put forward the view that “A sensible proposed amendment to the law in a free vote in this House would, I think, be carried.”
They were joined by Caroline Lucas (Green), Joanna Cherry and Ronnie Cowan (SNP), Christine Jardine and Sir Edward Davey (Lib Dem), and others from both Labour and the Conservatives in a spectacle rarely seen in party politics: total bipartisan agreement.
Despite being constantly and repetitively rebuffed by Home Office Minister Nick Hurd, their agreement that the current status quo is untenable will have sent a clear and powerful message to the government that something must be done, and there are small signs that they may have heard.
The day after the debate, Health Minister Baroness Williams claimed in the House of Lords that in the case of Alfie Dingley, “every option is being considered….including issuing a licence.”
It would be easy, given the Home Office’s record, to dismiss these claims as appeasement, but with Paul Flynn’s medical cannabis bill looming, it does seem as though change of some kind may finally be coming to the UK.
However, there is an elephant in the room which could undo all of the optimism currently felt by reformers: Flynn’s bill may well not be debated at all. The reason for this is that under House of Commons rules, there is a set amount of time put aside on any given day during which a number of bills can be debated. Flynn’s cannabis bill is scheduled to be debated third tomorrow, after debates on organ donation and overseas electors. If those debates are not completed more quickly than is usual, there is a good chance there will be no time to debate medical cannabis.
This would clearly be a setback and a disappointment for those activists drinking cannabis tea and waving placards outside Westminster, but they shouldn’t despair. Private Members Bills almost never become law anyway, but through some fortuitous timing this one has come about at a time when medical cannabis is on everyone’s minds. Whether or not the bill is passed, or even debated, it will have done its bit to help highlight the importance of the issue – and the overwhelming support for reform among the public and MPs – to those with the power to pass laws and grant licences that will benefit children like Alfie Dingley.
By Deej Sullivan
Writer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK – LEAP UK