Professor Alex Stevens

UK legal system prevents access to cannabis for many patients who might benefit

In response to The Times story – ‘More than a million Britons buying cannabis illegally to treat illness’ – Alex Stevens, Professor in Criminal Justice, provided the following comment.

‘Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, people face criminal prosecution for possession of schedule 2 substances without a prescription. According to some ethical arguments, this breaches their right to decide autonomously on their wellbeing. As patients have the right to refuse treatment under the doctrine of informed consent, they also—it is argued—have the right to decide on the treatments they want to use. This does not mean they have the right to draw on the public purse to pay for any and all treatments they might want. But it does mean, for example, that they should not be criminalised for growing cannabis to treat themselves.

‘Today’s YouGov poll shows that over a million people on the UK get cannabis from the illegal market to treat their own medical conditions. This means they are funding the harms of organised crime, using products of uncertain content, quality, and consistency, and may be treated as criminals for seeking to relieve their suffering.

‘The UK’s system prevents legal access to cannabis for many patients who might benefit. It also severely limits the ability of their doctors to prescribe it. The right regulations for drugs are both an ethical and an empirical concern. The ethical questions hinge on the actual effects of different approaches. So we need to invest in research on policy as well as on the clinical aspects of cannabis. In the short term, we should relax restrictions on prescription and reduce the harms of criminalisation by moving all plant based cannabis products to schedule 4(ii), alongside anabolic steroids. As with steroids, people should not be prosecuted for possessing cannabis for their personal use. In the longer term, we will need to consider more ethical and effective ways to regulate the supply of currently controlled drugs.’

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