Focus-Science and Technology - - DIS­COV­ER­IES -

The gov­ern­ment is re­view­ing the le­gal sta­tus of cannabis prod­ucts as par­ents of children with se­vere and hard-totreat epilepsy say it’s the only thing that helps con­trol their kids’ daily seizures.

Re­cently, 12-year-old Billy Cald­well (pic­tured) made head­lines when UK Cus­toms of­fi­cers con­fis­cated seven bot­tles of cannabis oil from his mother, Char­lotte Cald­well, who had flown to Canada to bring the prod­uct back.

Billy and his par­ents were even­tu­ally al­lowed to take the oil back to their home in North­ern Ire­land, but only af­ter be­ing granted a spe­cial tem­po­rary Home Of­fice li­cense. Other par­ents of children with se­vere epilepsy – who may ex­pe­ri­ence hun­dreds of seizures a day – say that they’re be­ing forced to break the law and ob­tain prod­ucts of du­bi­ous qual­ity in their at­tempts to ob­tain medic­i­nal cannabis.

What is ‘medic­i­nal cannabis’?

The cannabis plant con­tains many dif­fer­ent com­pounds called cannabi­noids. The two most sig­nif­i­cant ones are te­trahy­dro­cannabi­nol (THC) and cannabid­iol (CBD). While THC is the com­pound that gets recre­ational cannabis users high, CBD is of great in­ter­est to re­searchers for its med­i­cal prop­er­ties. On its own, CBD has shown prom­ise in the treat­ment of many health prob­lems, in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, epilepsy, anx­i­ety, Alzheimer’s, schizophre­nia, pain and Tourette’s.

Only one CBD-based drug is li­censed for use in the UK. This is Sa­tivex, used for the treat­ment of mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis. It con­tains CBD and THC and has un­der­gone strin­gent safety test­ing and clin­i­cal tri­als. Epid­i­olex, a highly-pu­ri­fied form of CBD used to treat epilepsy, has been ap­proved in the US but is still await­ing ap­proval for use in the EU.

With cannabis-based drugs for epilepsy and other dis­or­ders such as anx­i­ety not yet avail­able in the UK, peo­ple are seek­ing out un­reg­u­lated cannabis oils and other prod­ucts from on­line sup­pli­ers or abroad.

What is cannabis oil?

Cannabis oil is a gen­eral term for any liq­uid ex­tract that’s made from cannabis or hemp plants. Dr David Pot­ter, a cannabis ex­pert in­volved in both the pro­duc­tion of med­i­cal­grade CBD and the analysis of il­licit cannabis, says these prod­ucts can vary hugely in terms of how they’re made and what they con­tain. “Some of the oils we’ve an­a­lysed are quite close to what they say they con­tain, oth­ers are way off,” he says. The oils are of­ten mar­keted as food ad­di­tives to avoid hav­ing to ad­here to the strict qual­ity stan­dards re­quired of medicines.

How does CBD work?

CBD is just 1 of over 100 com­pounds known as cannabi­noids that are found in the cannabis plant.

These substances act on our ‘en­do­cannabi­noid sys­tem’, a com­plex part of the nervous sys­tem that helps reg­u­late a va­ri­ety of pro­cesses – in­clud­ing our sleep cy­cle, ap­petite, pain sen­sa­tion, mood and mem­ory.

Cannabi­noids like CBD and THC bind to re­cep­tors in this sys­tem through­out the body and brain, some­times ac­ti­vat­ing them and some­times sup­press­ing or block­ing them.

The ex­act rea­son CBD ap­pears to be so use­ful in treat­ing var­i­ous dis­or­ders is un­clear. It does not have the in­tox­i­cat­ing ef­fects of THC, and in­trigu­ingly seems to have al­most the ex­act op­po­site ef­fect to high doses of THC. Re­search shows that CBD has ap­petite­sup­press­ing prop­er­ties, un­like the fa­mous cannabis-in­duced ‘munchies’, and it has anti-anx­i­ety and anti-psy­chotic prop­er­ties as op­posed to the para­noia and psy­chosis in­duced by high-doses of THC. It is these prop­er­ties that have led to peo­ple pur­chas­ing CBD oil to try to al­le­vi­ate prob­lems such as in­som­nia and anx­i­ety.

Is cannabis oil le­gal in the UK?

Ac­cord­ing to the Home Of­fice, any ma­te­rial that con­tains THC is a Sched­ule 1 drug, mean­ing it’s classed as hav­ing no ther­a­peu­tic value and is il­le­gal. De­spite breed­ers de­vel­op­ing plants with high CBD lev­els and low THC lev­els, it’s im­pos­si­ble to breed a cannabis plant that con­tains no THC at all. There­fore, many cannabis oils are likely to con­tain small amounts of THC as well as CBD. Ac­cord­ing to the Home Of­fice, any ma­te­rial that con­tains more than 0.05 per cent THC is a Sched­ule 1 drug, mean­ing it’s classed as hav­ing no ther­a­peu­tic value and is il­le­gal. Cur­rently in the UK there is one brand of CBD oil that con­tains less than 0.05 per cent THC and is now avail­able in high street shops such as Hol­land & Bar­rett.

What about the rest of the world?

Sim­i­lar de­bates about medic­i­nal cannabis are play­ing out all around the world. In Canada, high-strength CBD-based prod­ucts are le­gal to buy in shops; Canada was where Billy Cald­well’s mother ob­tained the high-strength cannabis oil con­fis­cated in the UK – she’s also the di­rec­tor of a cannabis oil com­pany out there. How­ever, in other coun­tries, all cannabis prod­ucts re­main com­pletely il­le­gal.

Will cannabis be made le­gal in the UK soon?

In June, Eng­land’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer Dame Sally Davies pub­lished a re­port con­clud­ing that there was now ev­i­dence of ‘ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fit’ from some CBD-based cannabis prod­ucts. Af­ter fur­ther pres­sure from cam­paign groups, UK home sec­re­tary Sa­jid Javid has or­dered a re­view into whether ac­cess­ing cannabis for medic­i­nal use should be made eas­ier.

Fol­low­ing this re­view, cannabis prod­ucts may be re­clas­si­fied as a Sched­ule 2 drug, mean­ing recre­ational cannabis use would still be il­le­gal, but it would be eas­ier for cannabis­re­lated prod­ucts to be stud­ied and pre­scribed.

Billy Cald­well’s case has sparked a re­view of pol­icy con­cern­ing medic­i­nal cannabis oils

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