Boy heads home as authorities grant emergency permission for epilepsy medication
The Guardian, Mattha Busby
Thu 5 Jul 2018 09.23 EDT First published on Thu 5 Jul 2018 06.57 EDT
The 12-year-old boy with epilepsy whose condition sparked a national conversation on the UK’s drugs policy is heading home to County Tyrone, where he will be legally treated with a cannabis-based medicine.
After public outrage over the confiscation of Billy Caldwell’s medicine at Heathrow airport, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, granted a licence for cannabis oil to be administered to the boy at home.
Following uncertainty over whether the Northern Irish authorities would follow the Home Office’s lead, it was announced on Thursday that the region’s Department of Health had issued an emergency licence so he could continue to be treated at home after the family’s return to Castlederg from London.
“The Department of Health yesterday received an emergency licence application from Belfast Trust clinicians regarding medicinal cannabis use for Billy Caldwell,” a department spokeswoman said.
“An emergency licence has today been issued by the department, replicating the licence issued last month by the Home Office for treatment at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London.
“We have also been in discussions with the Home Office to finalise arrangements for the immediate transportation of Billy’s medicine from London to the Belfast Trust,” she added.
Speaking earlier in the week, Caldwell said her son was longing to return home. “Billy has been amazingly resilient throughout,” she said. “He’s autistic, and everything that has been going on – no regularity, no familiar surroundings – are beginning to take their toll on him ... He needs his toys, his garden, the things he’s used to. I need to see him happy and well.”
In 2017, Billy became the first child to be prescribed medicinal cannabis oil on the NHS. He then reportedly went 300 days without a seizure. But the Home Office later ordered his GP not to renew the prescription as it contravened UK law.
Sajid Javid looks into easing rules on medical cannabis prescription
This prompted his mother to take him to Canada to procure the medicine, but it was seized by border guards upon their return to Britain.
The confiscation led to MPs criticising UK cannabis laws, which one said “can’t be right, sensible or humane”, and to call for urgent reform.
Billy’s health deteriorated and within days he was taken to hospital in a “life-threatening” condition after his seizures returned, forcing Javid to issue an emergency licence so that clinicians could treat the boy with cannabis oil.
His seizures subsided as a result and Javid then issued a similar licence to Alfie Dingley, another child whose plight led to calls for the government to adopt a more compassionate approach.
That move led to pleas from families of other children with similar conditions to be granted access to the medicinal cannabis. There are about 20,000 such children who do not respond to the usual medication prescribed by the NHS.
Javid then announced that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs would assess whether cannabis should be reclassified – a move which would make it significantly easier for research to be conducted on the drug.
The home secretary said if the review identified significant medical and therapeutic benefits, then cannabis could be rescheduled for medicinal use.
Caldwell always made clear that she saw Billy’s case through the prism of a wider effort for children to gain access to useful medicines that the UK’s drug scheduling prevents.