Northern Ireland

Mum of Billy Caldwell (11) secures legal cannabis-based medicine on Irish soil

Billy Caldwell and mum Charlotte were previously forced to travel to the US to receive cannabis oil treatment for his debilitating epilepsy
Billy Caldwell and mum Charlotte were previously forced to travel to the US to receive cannabis oil treatment for his debilitating epilepsy

A Co Tyrone mother is receiving a cannabis-based medicine for her young son for the first time on Irish soil after previously bringing a supply of the vital drug from the USA.

Billy Caldwell (11) suffers a severe form of epilepsy that induces seizures which could kill and was initially not expected to survive before receiving life-saving treatment in Chicago.

When his condition worsened again last summer, his mum Charlotte was forced to take Billy to California, where medical and recreational cannabis is legal, to receive doses of oil made from the plant that can prevent seizures.

After a costly spell in Los Angeles that left the pair homeless while they paid for treatment, they were able to return to their Castlederg home after flying to Dublin, where they passed through customs with a supply of cannabis oil.

Now the relieved family can get the medicine they need without leaving Ireland.

Recent moves to legalise medical cannabis in the Republic mean patients can apply for ministerial approval to receive medicine containing the active ingredients CBD and THC, ahead of legalisation that will allow doctors to prescribe it to patients with conditions such as epilepsy and Multiple Sclerosis.

Charlotte told The Irish News that Billy, who is thought to be the first person in Northern Ireland legally prescribed a cannabis-based medicine in this form, has improved considerably.

“When you’re a mother and it’s a life and death situation to keep your son alive, worrying about the legal side of it all is the last thing on your mind,” she said.

“This epilepsy is frightening, and the impact it has on a child’s life is unbelievable. I’m delighted to be able to finally get the medicine I need at home, and I just hope other families in our situation can get the help they need too.”

Billy’s treatment is provided by Dublin-based Greenlight Medicines, whose founder Dr James Linden has been described as “Billy’s hero” by Charlotte.

He claimed that although progress is being made in both the Republic and the north – where Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill has vowed to introduce laws legalising medical cannabis in line with the south – the long-term health of many is at risk due to the “fear and stigma” associated with drug laws.

Cannabis remains a Class B drug in Northern Ireland with possession punishable by up to five years in prison under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

“In Billy’s case, the little bit of THC is all that’s needed, so there is no going over the legal limit,” said Dr Linden, originally from Saintfield, Co Down.

“However, thankfully the UK is beginning to open up to the possibility of being able to treat people with cannabis-based medicine.

"THC is the part that causes a ‘high’, but a lot of legal prescription medication also causes a ‘high’. Even ketamine is prescribed by some doctors.

“There are sadly many people whose health is at risk as they feel they cannot access cannabis-based treatment without possibly breaking the law."