The first NHS prescription for medical marijuana has been given to an 11-year-old boy with severe epilepsy.
Billy Caldwell began taking cannabis oil for his seizures after seeing a childhood epilepsy expert in California, where medical marijuana is legal, late last year.
Douglas Nordli, director of paediatric neurology at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, gave Billy the medicine, which contains a compound found in cannabis plants known as CBD.
Billy’s mother Charlotte Caldwell said the results were “incredible” and asked her GP in Northern Ireland to prescribe her son some more when it ran out.
Scientists have called for further research into the medical use of marijuana – an “area of huge untapped potential,” according to an Oxford associate professor involved in a new academic programme in the field.
But they have also warned stories such as Billy’s do not prove the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine until properly controlled clinical trials have taken place, as there could be a number of reasons for a patient’s recovery.
Ms Caldwell told Belfast Live she was “delighted” her local GP had signed the prescription, while doctor Brendan O’Hare said he had prescribed the CBD oil as it was a “unique and unusual” situation.
“I'm very grateful because the only alternative that was left for us was to fly to the US and have Dr Douglas Nordli prescribe it from there and bring it back into the country,” said Ms Caldwell.
“We went down to our surgery today and picked it up. It was as simple as that, no one has broken any laws and the meds will be with us before Billy needs them on Friday.”
The oil was supplied by Dublin-based pharmaceutical start-up GreenLight Medicines, which develops cannabis-based medicine.
Cannabis is a Class B drug in the UK, but the cannabidiol CBD, which does not create the ‘high’ associated with recreational use, has been reclassified as a medicine by the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
This means doctors can, in exceptional cases, prescribe medicines containing CBD to be manufactured or imported for a patient’s use.
Ms Caldwell, 49, said Billy has suffered from epilepsy since he was a baby and during his worst periods had 100 fits a day. But since the US trip in November, his seizures reduced from around 25 a month to about eight, and he has not had one for the past three months.
“Whatever the rights and wrongs, we had a child here who had benefitted and the child’s welfare was paramount. On that basis I issued a prescription and letter,” said Dr O’Hare, according to The Telegraph.
Billy currently takes two types of cannabis oil – one containing CBD and the other made from the compound tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), which is strictly illegal in the UK due to its association with the psychoactive effects of cannabis.
“It's two little bottles of oil. One is a CBD which is really good quality whole plant extract - no synthetics, no chemicals,” Ms Caldwell told ITV’s This Morning programme.
“And the other bottle is a THCA, which is the part that the controversy is about in our country - 0.2 is the legal limit but this is slightly over that level. It's working for him. Billy is just over 90 days seizure-free today.”
Currently there is one licenced cannabis-based medicine in Britain, designed to reduce muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
The mouth spray, called Sativex, contains two chemical extracts taken from the cannabis plant. It was licenced for use in the UK in 2010, but is not usually available on the NHS in England as it is deemed too expensive. It is, however, available to MS patients in Wales.
Epilepsy, a brain condition that causes recurrent seizures, affects around 600,000 people in the UK, according to charity Epilepsy Action.