Pubdate: Thu, 10 Oct 2002
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Simon de Bruxelles


A MAN who suffers from a painful spinal condition became the first person 
yesterday to be cleared by magistrates of cannabis possession on the ground 
of medical necessity.

Brad Stephens, 45, said that smoking cannabis was the only way to ease the 
pain of his spinal condition without large doses of morphine.

Carmarthen Magistrates' Court was told that police found 55g (1.9oz) of the 
class B drug in a raid on his home.

Mr Stephens admitted in court to being a regular cannabis user but pleaded 
not guilty to possessing the drug.

Mike Reed, for the defence, told the court: "Mr Stephens suffers from 
cervical spondylosis, a degenerative bone disease of the upper spine and 
neck.  He is on a heavy dose of morphine and over time the body needs 
bigger and bigger doses to combat pain.

"Large doses of morphine can seriously damage health, so by taking cannabis 
he reduces his dependency on morphine and the potentially fatal risk. In 
effect, the cannabis is saving his life."

The magistrates accepted it was a medical necessity for Mr Stephens to take 
the drug and found him not guilty. He was released, but the magistrates 
ordered the cannabis resin, which has an estimated street value of UKP 300, 
to be destroyed.

The Lord Chancellor's Department confirmed yesterday that although juries 
have found cannabis users not guilty in similar circumstances, this is the 
first time that magistrates have acquitted someone on medical grounds.

Mr Reed said after the hearing: "We needed to prove that the cannabis was 
doing more than simply easing his symptoms. There is a legal defence of 
necessity but it is very difficult to succeed with.

"But the court accepted it was a medical necessity for him to take the drug 
and found him not guilty."

Mr Stephens said: "I am over the moon. I have been taking cannabis for four 
years because of my illness.

"The police have charged me with possession before and I have been fined 
after admitting it. It has cost me a lot of money in fines so this time I 
thought if I plead not guilty I would see what happened.

"I was scared that they would stop me using the drug -- the effects on my 
quality of life would be devastating."

A Home Office spokeswoman said possession of cannabis is still a criminal 
offence with a maximum jail term of five years. She said: "At the moment it 
is a class B drug, but there are moves to bring it down to class C. It is 
illegal to posess it, even for medical reasons, although we are supporting 
research into this."

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said: "As far as we are 
aware, this is the first time this has happened. Magistrates have the power 
to rule on cases as they see fit."

An Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman said: "People have been 
getting confused about the law relating to cannabis, and at the moment a 
lot is down to the discretion of the police officer."

*Cervical spondylosis occurs when the spinal canal in the neck is narrowed 
by outgrowths of bone that compress the nerves. Jerky leg movements and an 
unsteady walk are early signs. The pain can range from mild discomfort to 
crippling, depending on the severity of the condition.

Treatment may begin with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, to relieve 
pain and reduce swelling, but in extreme cases more powerful painkillers 
may be needed. Surgery to remove bone spurs can give some patients lasting 
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