Why we need to legalise cannabis for medical use in the UK

As the Welsh Assembly votes in favour of asking the UK Government to reschedule medical cannabis to allow it to be prescribed and legally supplied, a long-standing member explains why redefining the drug as ‘therapeutic’ would decriminalise patients seeking pain relief.

Tetrahydrocannabinol structure and cannabis plant illustration

“Fifty years of intelligent, pragmatic drugs policies of decriminalisation in The Netherlands have delivered a prison crisis. There are not enough prisoners to fill their prisons. Isn’t this a problem we would like to share?”

This seemed a reasonable question to ask the UK Government’s drugs minister, Sarah Newton, during a Commons debate in July 2017, but the antennae of the main British political parties have been insensitive to the current global disillusionment with drug prohibition laws.

Until 1973, tincture of cannabis had been medically available in the UK for over 100 years. It has been used as a medicine in its natural form across the continents for 5,000 years[1]
. But in the 1960s, the UK was swept along with the international hysteria provoked by US President Nixon’s missionary zeal to eliminate the use of all illegal drugs.

UK’s progress lags behind

Increased drug use, and the monetary and human costs resulting from prohibition are now being recognised. Already, 29 of the 50 US states supply medicinal cannabis, and it has also been legalised in Canada. This side of the Atlantic, medicinal cannabis is produced in The Netherlands and is available in Italy, Finland, Switzerland and Germany.

But the UK’s stance has not yet changed. Public opinion is ahead of Parliament. In 1999, a jury empathised with a wheelchair-bound cannabis user and sought to disregard a law that they believed was unjust. The judge ruled that the decision lay with Parliament, and the accused was convicted. Parliament continues to deliver injustices as it dodges its responsibility and fails to reform.

Reclassifying medicinal cannabis

On 17 January 2018, Welsh Assembly Members voted in favour of a motion to reclassify medical cannabis.

My Bill, Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill 2017–19, scheduled for its second reading on Friday 23 February 2018, would move cannabis from a schedule that defines the drug as of no medicinal benefit to one that permits its use for therapeutic reasons.

My call for users of medicinal cannabis to break the law at Parliament was a final ploy. After 20 years of campaigning, impatience is now justified. That law is an ass. Could a day of civil disobedience shame a parliament into reform?

Elizabeth Brice, a television producer and a brilliant person, shared my anger. Brice was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at just 26 years of age. She campaigned for the use of cannabis as medicines (under the pseudonym Clare Hodges), drank cannabis tea on the Commons terrace, and persuaded the Belgian Parliament to legalise medicinal cannabis in 2001. Sadly, she passed away in 2011 with so much more to have been achieved.

Current drugs law and strategy

The law on cannabis forces users to buy from the black market, where irresponsible dealers sell hazardous drug forms. One police officer forced into early retirement by MS turned to buying cannabis from the petty criminals she used to lock up, while others import seeds from Amsterdam and grow their own. UK law punishes by years of imprisonment for these victimless ‘crimes’. Police officers and prosecutors are doing Parliament’s job by turning a blind eye to this law, but the law is the law.

Combining previous failed policies creates failed policy

The ‘new’ drug strategy is a repeat of the lame cowardice that government has shown in the almost 50 years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was introduced, but it comes with ‘joined-up’ and ‘holistic’ window-dressing — meaningless adjectival jargon[2]
. Combining previous failed policies creates failed policy, and there is no sign that the civil service or government has changed its thinking in response to the global disillusionment with drug law.

Decriminalising patients seeking relief

During my 30 years in parliament I have campaigned against the harm caused by the antidepressant paroxetine and the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug rofecoxib; and I now chair a campaign opposed to the growing menace of opioid misuse. But cannabis is a drug that evidence suggests could provide unique relief for many who suffer from the cruel disease MS[3]
. The law should not criminalise patients seeking relief from pain and spasm.

Legalising cannabis for medicinal use has shown reductions in criminal activity

Legalising cannabis for medicinal use has not previously shown spikes in cannabis use, and no increase in road fatalities[5]
. But there have been reductions in criminal activity, and new taxes have contributed millions of dollars to the coffers of countries that have introduced new policy on medicinal cannabis.

The arguments are now irresistible. Recent parliamentary debates have been dominated by those who believe that prohibition has failed. I hope my party will be the first major one to adopt policies that are far removed from the evidence-free errors of the past 50 years. It is time to sweep aside those grievous errors and the waste of prohibition.

Paul Flynn is Labour MP for Newport West, Wales.


[1] Bridgeman MB and Abazia DT. Medicinal cannabis: history, pharmacology, and implications for the acute care setting. PT 2017;42(3):180–88. PMCID: PMC5312634

[2] HM Government. 2017 drug strategy. July 2017. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/628148/Drug_strategy_2017.PDF (accessed January 2018)

[3] National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Medical marijuana (cannabis). Available at: www.nationalmssociety.org/Treating-MS/Complementary-Alternative-Medicines/Marijuana#section-0 (accessed January 2018)

[4] Multiple Sclerosis Society. Cannabis and MS: the role of cannabis in treating MS symptoms. Available at: www.mssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/Cannabis%20and%20MS%20Report%20July%202017.pdf (accessed January 2018)

[5] Hasin DS, Wall M, Keyes KM et al. Medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use in the USA from 1991 to 2014: results from annual, repeated cross-sectional surveys. Lancet Psychiatry 2015;2:601–08. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00217-5

[6] Anderson DM, Hansen B and Rees DI. Medical marijuana laws, traffic fatalities, and alcohol consumption. J Law Econ 2013 56;2:333–369. doi: 10.1086/668812

[7] Aydelotte JD, Brown LH, Luftman KM et al. Crash fatality rates after recreational marijuana legalisation in Washington and Colorado. Am J Public Health 2017;107;8:1329–1331. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303848

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Why we need to legalise cannabis for medical use in the UK;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20204287

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