Confiscation of CBD Oil Sparks Backlash, Putting Pressure on UK Officials

Published on June 18, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
FILE - In this June 11, 2018 file photo, Billy Caldwell sits with his mother Charlotte. The British government on Saturday June 16, 2018, changed course over a case concerning the use of cannabis oil, saying an epileptic boy can be treated with it after his mother said he needed it to survive severe seizures. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP, File)

In a stunning about-face, the United Kingdom’s health secretary on Monday endorsed cannabis as a legitimate medical treatment and criticized the country’s drug laws. His statements came after authorities confiscated CBD oil intended to treat a 12-year-old boy’s severe epilepsy. Without it, his condition swiftly deteriorated.

Billy Caldwell and his mother, Charlotte, had a small bottle of high-CBD cannabis oil taken by authorities on June 11 at Heathrow Airport in London, where the pair had touched down after traveling to Canada to access medical cannabis.

Within hours of having his medicine confiscated, Billy suffered his first seizure in more than a year. It was captured on video and posted to social media, where it circulated widely.

Observers say Billy Caldwell’s well-publicized suffering has galvanized public support and shamed officials into taking action.

Billy had already made history as the first person to receive approval from a National Health Service physician to use medical cannabis, but his family was forced to find an alternate source of cannabis after British law enforcement threatened his doctor with punishment.

Cannabis is considered a Class B drug in Britain, with both possession and use forbidden in any circumstances despite increasing pressure from the public and some lawmakers.

On Friday, as his health continued to decline, Billy was hospitalized in severe condition. At a press conference Monday, his mother said the circumstances had “panicked our government into action.”

In a flurry of activity over the weekend, Sajid Javid, Britain’s Home Secretary, issued a one-time, 20-day “urgent license” that allows Billy access to cannabis oil, essentially granting the family official permission to break the law.

“This is a very complex situation, but our immediate priority is making sure Billy receives the most effective treatment possible in a safe way,” the office said in a statement.

Following that treatment, Billy recovered and was released into his mother’s care, she said.

Meanwhile, in an embarrassing bit of irony, the sister-in-law of the UK’s drugs minister has acknowledged using a similar high-CBD concoction, which she purchased online, to manage her own pain. The product obtained by the Caldwells contained a small amount of THC in addition to CBD, with a CBD-to-THC ratio of 50:1.

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That minister, Nick Hurd, had personally met with Charlotte Caldwell to explain why her son’s medicine had to be seized by the government.

On Monday, in an interview with ITV News, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he supports medical marijuana and that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government would conduct a review “as quickly as we possibly can.”

That was echoed in an announcement from Labour, the UK’s official opposition party, which said a Labour government “will allow the legal prescription of cannabis oil for medical purposes.”

Current policy is causing “extraordinary suffering” to children like Billy Caldwell, said Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abott. “This must not continue,” she said.

Exactly what will happen next—and when—isn’t yet clear.

May’s government appeared to downplay the possibility of reviewing the status of medical cannabis in the country, at least for now. According to the Guardian, the prime minister herself tried to slow medical cannabis’s momentum, personally cautioning Home Secretary Javid from moving too quickly during a Monday meeting of the prime minister’s cabinet.

Advocates and observers say Billy Caldwell’s well-publicized suffering has galvanized public support and shamed officials into taking action—a dynamic also seen in the United States, where cannabis oil high in CBD and low in THC is available throughout most of the country.

“The public has a lot of sympathy for mothers looking out for their children,” Clark French, the founder and director of the United Patients Alliance, the country’s leading medical-marijuana advocacy group, said in a statement to Leafly.

Though the issue is “still in limbo,” he said, the Caldwells executed what turned out to be a “well planned out media campaign that shows [the government] to be callous and cruel.”

But a policy that merely allows CBD oil would not be sufficient. Anecdotal evidence from French, who himself suffers from multiple sclerosis, suggests that cannabis with THC is also necessary to best manage of pain and other conditions, including wasting syndrome in cancer and HIV/AIDS patients—a contention supported by what limited research is available.

The seven bottles seized from the Caldwells last week each contained 40ml of Tilray 2:100, with a total of 4,000mg of CBD and 80mg of THC. The medicine is dosed at a ratio of 100mg CBD to 2mg THC. The product contains the same target concentration of CBD and THC as the study drug used in a recent trial on pediatric epilepsy conducted by pediatric neurologists at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto. (Full disclosure: Tilray is a Canadian licensed producer of medical cannabis, and is owned by Privateer Holdings, the private equity firm that also owns Leafly.)

More developments could follow shortly.

On the steps of the hospital where her son had undergone treatment, Charlotte Caldwell demanded a meeting “within 24 hours” with government officials, who she would personally lobby to pass emergency legislation allowing for cannabis access “to all patients who urgently require it in our country.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story failed to mention that the high-CBD medication obtained by Billy Caldwell and his mother also contained a small amount of THC, with a CBD-to-THC ratio of 50:1.

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Chris Roberts
Chris Roberts
Based in New York City, Chris Roberts has been writing about cannabis since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009. His work has been published in SF Weekly, Cannabis Now, The Guardian, High Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others.
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