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United Kingdom

Britain risks a 'big mistake' on cannabis, warns NHS chief

Britain is on the brink of making a ‘big mistake’ by adopting a softer stance on cannabis, the head of the NHS has said.

The warning from Simon Stevens – in a speech to 300 doctors – comes six months after the Government legalised medicinal cannabis.

Since November, certain medical professionals have been allowed to prescribe the drug for conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain.

Mr Stevens is concerned it will pave the way for the substance to be legalised for recreational use – just like in parts of the US and Canada.

The warning from Simon Stevens – in a speech to 300 doctors – comes six months after the Government legalised medicinal cannabis (file image)

Addressing the Royal Society of Medicine in London, he also warned of the dangers of cannabis.

Two studies this year found it significantly increased the risk of the psychosis, which causes hallucinations, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Mr Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said: ‘I think we have to be careful, as we have a legitimate national debate on medical cannabis, that we don’t look back in a decade’s time and wonder whether we inadvertently made a big mistake. Given the well-documented medical risks from so-called recreational cannabis, we don’t want to be accidentally normalising drug use.

Case that changed law 

Billy Cadwell has life-threatening epilepsy which can cause 100 fits a day at its worst

It was the case of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell that led to a change in the law on prescribing the drug.

Billy has life-threatening epilepsy which can cause 100 fits a day at its worst.

In 2017, he became the first person in the UK to be prescribed medical cannabis by his GP in Northern Ireland. His mother Charlotte Caldwell says while Billy took the cannabis oil, which she got in Canada, he did not have seizures. But in June 2018, it was confiscated by customs officials.

Billy’s seizures intensified and he was admitted to hospital. But Home Secretary Sajid Javid intervened and allowed medical marijuana to be reclassified so it could be prescribed from November 1, 2018. 

‘That is in no sense to disregard the research that is needed to understand whether there are particular clinical uses for medicinal cannabis.’

Ten US states have now legalised the drug for recreational use. Most of them first allowed cannabis to be used for medical purposes, from the late 1990s.

Mr Stevens also spoke of a recent trip to America where magazines on sale in the airport were ‘pushing the business of cannabis production’.

He said: ‘We must not be naive in pretending that there isn’t a whole industry just waiting to expand their “addressable market” for drugs in this country.

‘Here is Marijuana Business Magazine and one of their features is Is Europe The Next Promised Land? I certainly hope the answer to that is no.’

The largest US cannabis-producing companies each make between £150million and £400million a year and sell medical and recreational products, including chocolate.

It isn’t the first time the NHS boss has spoken out against legalising cannabis. Last June, he argued that relaxing the law would imply to teenagers that the drug was safe. Cannabis was reclassified in 2009 from a class C to a class B drug, which means higher jail sentences for possession.

But several police chiefs are now urging officers to be more lenient on offenders.

Dave Thompson, Chief Constable for the West Midlands, told MPs two months ago how his force was handing out fewer charges and warnings for cannabis possession so as not to harm youngsters’ ‘life chances’.

But David Green, director of the Civitas think-tank, said: ‘Experience of the tobacco industry shows that unscrupulous investors will exploit markets regardless of the harm to consumers. The NHS is already unable to meet the demand for mental health services and even a small increase in demand could create a crisis.’

Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, is concerned it will pave the way for the substance to be legalised for recreational use – just like in parts of the US and Canada

David Raynes, from the National Drug Prevention Alliance charity, said: ‘Medical cannabis use is just a Trojan horse for recreational drug use.

‘There are very grave dangers with its use and Simon Stevens is absolutely right.’

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘Specialist doctors can now prescribe cannabis-based products for medical use where there is clinical evidence of benefit. However, the Government has no plans to legalise cannabis for recreational use.

‘Our approach remains clear – we must prevent drug use in our communities, support people through treatment and recovery and tackle the supply of illicit drugs.’ 

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