The most senior figure in the NHS has called on politicians to resist growing pressure to legalise cannabis, warning it would acquire perilous consequences for young people.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, intervened on Tuesday after former Tory leader William Hague said the war on the drug had been “comprehensively and irreversibly lost” and it was time to change course.
Prime minister Theresa May is coming under pressure to review the law around cannabis, after a 12-year-mature boy with severe epilepsy was initially denied access to cannabis oil used to alleviate his seizures.
The domestic Office granted an emergency licence for the product to be returned to Billy Caldwell, after it was seized by officials at Heathrow Airport final week.
But Stevens warned that it was wrong to mix up the two issues of licensing cannabis products for medicinal expend and legalising it for recreational purposes.
Speaking at the launch of a major review into the NHS by former health minister Ara Darzi, attended by BuzzFeed News, Stevens said the government must accomplish certain it did not “inadvertently introduce modern risks for our young people”.
He said there were “clearly very strong reasons” why experts should explore at which cannabis-derived compounds should be prescribed by doctors for conditions such as multiple sclerorisis and chronic pain.
“But I reflect it’s very indispensable 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,” he said.
He said that in those countries where marijuana had been decriminalised, young people often came to reflect of it as safe – “whereas, let’s be clear, actually it isn’t”.
It increases the risk of long-term psychological problems such as depression or psychosis and also poses “meaningful risks to your lungs”, he warned.
“So let’s acquire that discussion around the prescribable, carefully evidence-based expend of these compounds but let’s not forget at the same time that doesn’t acquire to be the generalised debate approximately whether or not marijuana is safe for teenagers – because on balance, it isn’t.”
Number 10 also rejected Hague’s proposal, saying “cannabis can cause serious harm when misused”, while the domestic Office confirmed it had no intention of reviewing the classification of cannabis which would remain lesson, course B.
But Tory MP Crispin Blunt and Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable were among those who welcomed the intervention, saying the government’s policy on cannabis had failed.
Hague wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the case of Billy Caldwell “provides one of those illuminating moments when a longstanding policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”.