04 Feb Let’s Temper Hope For Paul Flynn’s Medical Cannabis Bill With Some Reality.
No one would like to see Paul Flynn’s ‘Elizabeth Brice’ bill to re-legalise medical cannabis pass through Parliament more than me. Yet it concerns me that expectations are being raised way beyond what is realistic. There is widespread misunderstanding about what the bill is and what are its chances of getting any further.
The Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill 2017–19 is a Private Member’s Bill. It was introduced to Parliament on Tuesday 10 October 2017 under the Ten Minute Rule. This allows an MP to make his or her case for a new bill in a speech lasting up to ten minutes. An opposing speech may also be made before the House decides whether or not the bill should be introduced. If the MP is successful the bill is taken to have had its first reading.
Private Member’s Bills almost never become law. Those that have the best of a very slim chance are proposed by one of about 20 MPs who win the right to put a bill forward a bill in the ballot that takes place at the beginning of each session. This also decides the order of precedence for the 20 bills to be given parliamentary time.
A 10 Minute Rule Bill is even less likely to become law. It is the only way other than the ballot that an MP can introduce a bill personally and if it passes its first reading, as Paul Flynn’s bill did, it is set down for second reading. All Private Member’s Bills are debated on Fridays and before any 10 Minute Rule can be debated the bills put forward under the ballot will come first and even for those, mostly there will be no time available. Remember also that on Fridays most MPs will not even be in Parliament, they will be back in their constituencies seeing people in their surgeries.
Sadly, the truth is that the second reading of Paul Flynn’s bill is unlikely even to take place. Although it is set down for 23rd February 2018, there is virtually zero chance of any time being found for it. It will simply wither away with no progress or further mention.
Even Parliament’s own website says of 10 Minute Rule Bills “an opportunity for Members to voice an opinion…rather than a serious attempt to get a Bill passed.”
I asked Paul Flynn himself what he thought were the chances of his bill making any progress and his response is illuminating. His exact words were: “I am expecting major changes to political party attitudes in the next 12 months following the developing trends in the United States.”
I think we can all agree on that. In fact, I would say that there already have been major changes in the attitudes of most MPs. The single biggest obstacle to any drug law reform is Theresa May. After all, what other leader anywhere in the world, apart from the murderous thug President Durterte of the Philippines, has recently called for a continuance of the war on drugs?
I am confident that once Theresa May is gone, then whatever party is in power, we will see some progress. There is similar, hopeless optimism about Jeremy Corbyn. Speaking at a Labour leadership debate in Glasgow, in August 2016, he said: “I would decriminalise medicinal uses of cannabis.” I think it was the same day or the day after that both John McDonnell and Diane Abbott contradicted him. Nevertheless, there is a delusional strand of opinion that Corbyn would act on this immediately he was elected. Dream on! The Labour Party has the worst record of any UK political party on drugs policy. For instance it was Margaret Thatcher who introduced needle exchange back in the 80s and yes, even Theresa May sanctioned the provision of foil to heroin users for smoking as an alternative to injecting. The Labour Party has never done anything in support of progressive drugs policies that it hasn’t reversed under pressure from the tabloid press.
Progress on access to medical cannabis is coming irrespective of which party is in power. In the meantime, the best that any of us can do is keep up pressure on our personal MPs and in our local media and through our doctors. Probably the biggest breakthrough this year on medical cannabis will be the publication of guidelines by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP). Organised by CLEAR and authored by our Scientific and Medical Advisor, Professor Mike Barnes, this shows MPs that however irresponsible and pig-headed government ministers may be, doctors have a responsibility to their patients, an ethical duty that transcends the grubby and corrupt politics that ministers subscribe to.
Sadly then, 23rd February and the second reading of Paul Flynn’s bill will be a non-event. For the rest of 2018 look out for the RCGP guidelines and drop your MP a line when they come out asking for his or her view. Also, in July look out for Canada’s legalisation of cannabis for all adults. Again, another opportunity to bring the subject up with your MP. The latest, standard, Home Office approved reply from MPs reads as follows:
“Cannabis in its raw form is not recognised as having any medicinal purposes. The licensing regime for medicines is administered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which issues licences for medicines in the UK which have been tested for their safety, quality and efficacy.
A medicine derived from the cannabis plant, Sativex, has already been licenced for use in the treatment of spasticity due to multiple sclerosis (MS). The MHRA is open to considering other licence applications for medicines containing cannabinoids should such products be developed.
In 2014, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published its clinical guideline on the management of MS that does not recommend Sativex as a cost effective use of NHS resources. In the absence of positive guidance from NICE, it is for commissioners to make decisions on whether to fund this treatment based on an assessment of the available evidence.
I do appreciate that there are people with chronic pain and debilitating illnesses who seek to alleviate their symptoms by using cannabis. Although such use is illicit, the Sentencing Council’s guidelines on drug offences identify such circumstances as a potential mitigating factor.
The Government has no plans to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. The official advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs cites medical and scientific research showing that cannabis use has a number of adverse acute and chronic health effects, especially for people with mental health problems, and continues to present a significant public health issue.”
If you receive this response, first of all, don’t bother writing back, it will get you nowhere. If you really want to do your bit then make an appointment to see your MP at his/her surgery. Then give him/her this simple fact that totally devastates the Home Office and MHRA position:
In every jurisdiction throughout the world where medicinal cannabis has been legally regulated, it is through a special system outside pharmaceutical medicines regulation.
This is the government’s very last excuse for denying access to medicinal cannabis. The MHRA process is incapable of dealing with a medicine that contains hundreds of molecules. It is designed by the pharmaceutical industry for regulating single molecule medicines, usually synthesised in a lab, which have the potential to be highly toxic. Every other government that has recognised the enormous benefit that medicinal cannabis offers has come to the same conclusion: cannabis is a special case. It is far more complex but much, much safer than pharmaceutical products.