Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced a review of the medicinal use of cannabis which could lead to patients in the UK being prescribed drugs derived from the banned plant.
Mr Javid announced the move in a statement to the House of Commons in the wake of a series of appeals from parents who want their children to be able to access medications which can alleviate epilepsy and other illnesses.
The Home Secretary announced that he had authorised a licence to be issued on Tuesday for six-year-old Alfie Dingley, after his mother said she had been waiting three months for Prime Minister Theresa May to fulfil a personal assurance that he would be allowed to receive cannabis oil.
Speaking to the House of Commons, Mr Javid stressed that the class B drug would remain banned for recreational use.
Reschedule if 'significant medical benefits' found
Mr Javid told MPs that the review would be held in two parts. The first, led by chief medical officer Sally Davies, will make recommendations on which cannabis-based medicines might offer patients real medical and therapeutic benefits.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will consider in the second part of the review whether changes should be made to the classification of these products on an assessment of "the balance of harms and public health needs".
"If the review identifies significant medical benefits, then we do intend to reschedule," Mr Javid told MPs.
"We have seen in recent months that there is a pressing need to allow those who might benefit from cannabis-based medicines to access them."
Mr Javid said that since becoming Home Secretary in April, it had become clear to him that the current legal position on medicinal cannabis was "not satisfactory for the parents, not satisfactory for the doctors, and not satisfactory for me".
But he insisted: "This step is in no way a first step to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.
"This Government has absolutely no plans to legalise cannabis and the penalties for unauthorised supply and possession will remain unchanged."
Hague pushing for legalisation
The announcement of the review came just days after Mr Javid intervened to permit the use of cannabis oil to treat severely epileptic 12-year-old Billy Caldwell, who had been admitted to hospital with seizures after supplies his mother had brought from Canada were confiscated at Heathrow.
His mother, Charlotte Caldwell, said: “We welcome and applaud the fact they’re going to set up a panel of clinicians but there are a lot of questions - when will it take place? How much will it cost?”
Billy's case provoked widespread calls for a change in the law, with former Conservative leader Lord Hague urging ministers to consider full legalisation of the drug.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative peer - who led the party from 1997-2001 and was foreign secretary from 2010-14 - said the war on cannabis had been "comprehensively and irreversibly lost" and it was time to consider legalising the substance for recreational as well as medicinal use.
But he was swiftly slapped down by the Home Office, which said: "Any debate within government about the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of cannabis-based medicines does not extend to any review regarding the classification of cannabis and the penalties for the illicit possession, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis will remain the same."
Lord Hague said the case of Billy Caldwell had shown the law around cannabis to be "inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date".
Recognising health risks
Licensing medicinal cannabis would be a step forward, but the Government should also consider legalising the drug, as Canada is on the verge of doing, he said.
But NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens urged caution.
"I think it's very important as a country that we don't confuse this debate around specifically prescribable products for certain medical conditions with a much more generalised debate around the decriminalisation or legalisation of marijuana, without at the same time reminding ourselves that there are some genuine health risks there," Mr Stevens told a conference in London.
He warned of the risks of addiction to cannabis and long-term psychiatric problems such as depression and psychosis, as well as possible damage to lungs.