HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc426-8 5.41 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow the production, supply, possession and use of cannabis resin for medicinal purposes. Yesterday, in Swansea, a pensioner was given a cruel and unjust sentence of 12 months. He was given that sentence in the name of this House and all hon. Members. Mr. Eric Mann is known to me and to other hon. Members through his correspondence over several years. He is clearly an intelligent man. This decent and otherwise law-abiding man committed the crime—in the eyes of the court in Swansea and of the House—of using his chosen medicine to relieve his chronic pain.

Like many others, Mr. Mann had tried many conventional and unconventional cures. None of them worked for him, so he decided to use cannabis, with which he found relief from the pain. He was not selling it to anyone. He was not involved in any way in the illegal market. He grew his own. For that, this pensioner is facing a 12–month term of gaol.

There have been many similar cases. In a case last month in Hove, the jury—like many others in such cases—wanted to be compassionate and asked the judge whether they should convict a man who was confined to a wheelchair even if they felt that the law was unjust. The judge told them that it was up to Parliament to change the law, and that they must abide by that and return a verdict. It is up to us to decide the sentences. The responsibility for the savage injustice that has been meted out to Mr. Eric Mann in Swansea lies here.

The House of Lords Select Committee is hardly a bunch of drug-crazed teenagers. Its members are senior and elderly scientists. The Bill reflects their recommendations on the matter—that it should be possible for cannabis to be prescribed by a limited number of doctors in an unlicensed form to named patients, just as heroin and cocaine are supplied. It may come as a surprise to many that heroin and cocaine are prescribed legally. That cannot be done with cannabis. As the Lords Committee recommended, the Bill would also allow further research without the need for a special licence from the Home Office.

The Government's reaction to the report came within nanoseconds of its publication. They said: The Government's view is that cannabis should not be available on prescription unless or until the safety, quality and efficacy of a medicinal form had been scientifically established and a marketing authorisation issued by the Medicines Control Agency."—[Official Report, 18 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 607.] Superficially, that may seem reasonable, but a more telling comment came in The Pharmaceutical Journal, which quoted a Labour party source as saying: Whatever the evidence, this administration is not going to risk being seen as soft on drug taking. That shows the true position. When reading the press releases from the previous Government and this Government, it is impossible to get beyond a couple of sentences before finding the word "tough". Governments regard it as electorally damaging to be seen as soft on drugs.

I hate my party to be seen in this way, but the Government are not tough on drugs, but tough on multiple sclerosis patients, tough on cancer victims and tough on Aids sufferers. The Government seized on the word "unlicensed", as though it is rare to have an unlicensed drug. Some 36 per cent. of the medicines that are prescribed to children in hospitals are unlicensed. They have not gone through trials. The trials for a new drug are rightly very tight, given all the tragedies that have occurred.

However, all the problems that we have had have come from chemical drugs—substances that do not occur naturally in the form in which we are taking them or injecting them in various ways. Cannabis is a natural substance which has been used for at least 3,000 years, according to the records. No medicine has been tried and tested like cannabis sativa. It was used by the people who built the pyramids to help with their eye problems. They did not know why it worked, but it did. Cannabis has been used as a medicine throughout the centuries on every continent. The word in Chinese means "big medicine". Unfortunately, our judgment has been clouded by recreational use, which has come about almost entirely since cannabis was banned.

Many other drugs are given unlicensed. Many of our established medicines would never get through the licensing rules. Several hon. Members have told me that they thought that the problem had been solved and the Government were carrying out trials. Sadly, there is no hope under the current policy of any patient receiving cannabis for at least five years, possibly much longer, because of the complexity of cannabis, which has at least 400 naturally occurring ingredients. The trials may finish in five years, 10 years, sometime or never.

Hon. Members should speak to people suffering from multiple sclerosis who are looking forward to a good night's sleep, which they cannot get without cannabis. Tens of thousands of people are taking it, including those suffering from the foul side effects of chemotherapy and the awful nausea and vomiting that can go on for days, so debilitating the cancer victims that they lose the will to struggle against the cancer. Some who suffer from the dreadful pain of Aids have found solace in this ancient medicine.

When I raised the subject some years ago, I brought three master criminals to the House to hear the debate. They were all women. One of them was in her 30s and a mother of young children. She had MS and found it impossible to control her bodily functions without the use of cannabis. There was another lady in her 60s with cerebral palsy. She was a lovely lady who had a cannabis plant the size of a bush in her garage and kept her spliffs rolled up in a silver cigarette case next to a bust of Queen Victoria, who took cannabis every month of her adult life. The third, Carol Howard, told a moving story of how she cared for her daughter Sara, who was dying from a rare form of cancer. Sara knew that she was dying. Chemotherapy was all that was available, but it had dreadful side effects. The chemical drugs left her a zombie. She could not communicate; but if she took cannabis she could talk lucidly to her family and say those precious things that one wants to say when one realises that death is at hand.

I challenge anyone in the House to say that, in that position, they would not supply their loved ones with cannabis, if that was the only thing that offered relief. If we are not prepared to obey the laws ourselves—and I am sure that none of us would in such a case—how on earth can we continue to justify them?

The principal reason for the recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee was compassion. Members of the Committee looked into the face of Clare Hodges and of the people from the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, which is a patients' organisation that does not, unlike many, get money from drug companies. All its members are seriously ill, most with multiple sclerosis, and suffer exhaustion. They have few resources, but they are behind the Bill and behind previous Adjournment debates on the subject.

Dare we say to those people, as the Government are saying, that they will have to wait for the long time that it takes for this ancient medicine, one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to humankind—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mr. Brian Cotter, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Dr. Jenny Tonge, Mr. James Wallace, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. Andrew George, Mr. Donald Gorrie and Dr. Peter Brand.