The debate about legalising cannabis in the UK is an ongoing one. Add the controversial ‘strictly for medical purposes’ element, and the discussion gathers pace. Research is ongoing and so are the arguments.
Perhaps it’s because outside of the ‘medical’ debate, cannabis is associated with a culture all of its own, of music, art, language, humour etc. That culture is steeped in spiritual, almost mystical roots and consequently feared or misunderstood by those who do not partake in the rituals associated with it. The psychotherapeutic effects of cannabis are also well documented, and the potential for altered states of consciousness may be another reason why it may be feared by those who prefer not to imbibe it (Brownlee, 2002).
Everyone will have their own story about cannabis. If not their own experience of smoking it, most people know someone who smokes it infrequently or regularly, or knows of someone who knows someone who does. When I first left school I worked in a well-known hamburger restaurant, and most of my fellow employees were young university graduates. Smoking ‘pot’ or eating pot cakes at parties was the norm for 80% of them. It was cheaper than alcohol, achieved a similar chilled-out head space and they didn’t have a hangover the next morning, which meant being able to get up for work.
In a recent debate, Peter Hitchens and Peter Reynolds make their views explicitly clear about the subject and never the twain shall agree. Hitchens, a writer for the Mail on Sundayand author of the book “The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs”, is also well known for his anti-cannabis views.
Reynolds is the leader of the political party CLEAR, who argues for the reform of laws about cannabis use in the UK and in particular for people with medical conditions.
Reynolds is passionate that people who use cannabis to alleviate their pain from chronic illness and terminal conditions should not be criminalised for it. He wants to get dealers off the streets and regulations firmly in place, where cannabis can do its job as a medicine.
Hitchens on the other hand believes strongly in the correlation between taking cannabis and the development of mental illness, and talks about specific case histories. There are various studies which support this theory, and as many that disprove it.
The most recent study (February 2015) by Kings College London, however, puts Hitchens’ concerns into context. The research carried out with participants in South London revealed that taking high potency skunk-like cannabis is associated with 24% of all new cases of psychosis. Headlines like these can be misinterpreted and create a blanket ‘cannabis is the root of all psychosis’ message. However, it is critical to read the finer points of the research. It is not just the substance i.e. ‘high potency skunk-like cannabis’ that is cause for concern, but the regularity with which it is consumed that has the potential to create problems. The salient points of the research were that the risk of psychosis was five times higher for those who use it every day compared with non-users. For the benefit of those using cannabis (or specifically ‘hash’) for medical or recreational purposes, there is no increased risk of psychosis.
In reality, there appears to be no single drug (legal or illegal) that is a cure all to alleviate pain in people who are chronically ill. In the debate, Marianne (who has colon cancer) states that the licensed cancer drugs she takes are ‘toxic’ and have hideous ‘side effects’. She is also aware that some cancer patients take cannabis because it acts as a pain killer and an anti-emetic (prevents vomiting) which can be very effective when people are undergoing chemotherapy. The only doubt in Marianne’s mind about taking cannabis is that it has not been ‘properly and scientifically studied’. Consequently it is not currently licensed in the UK and prohibits her use of it for now.
Other countries in the world have legalised cannabis for medical use. There are at least twenty legal medical marijuana states in the USA. France legalised medical cannabis in 2013. In Germany, possession and consumption of cannabis is permitted as part of a medically supervised programme and pharmacies can obtain a licence to sell cannabis-based medications only to patients with specific permission to use those products. Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands have decriminalised cannabis and, whilst use in the Czech Republic and Denmark is still officially illegal, possession of small amounts is permitted for medical use.
What is currently legal in the UK is a product called Sativex. It is a mouth spray made from using two chemical extracts from cannabis, and is used primarily by sufferers of multiple sclerosis for spasticity (muscle stiffness). In a clinical trial of over 500 people, “48% of participants had 20% or more improvement in their spasticity” compared with those taking a placebo, indicating the effectiveness of the drug. The difficulty for some patients who use Sativex is that their GP will not always prescribe it. There are no clear guidelines for physicians, and some won’t risk breaking the law. Perhaps like cancer care nationally, which can be a bit of a postcode lottery, so it is with prescribing Sativex. Some patients have to resort to buying it online. Their main frustration is why do they have to suffer pain and discomfort when a solution already exists to relieve it. The alternative is to risk breaking the law in order to obtain cannabis, a natural substance in order to make them feel better.
Research on the positive effects of cannabis oil to treat cancer and other chronic disease has recently made headlines, but that can be discussed in another article. Watch the space.
With the General Election just weeks away (7th May, 2015) each Political party will have its view. To legalise or not to legalise cannabis, that is the question. In the last few days, Peter Lilley( Conservative Party) has put pressure on the lead contenders for the party leadership to seriously consider a more liberal view on cannabis laws. He wants to address consumer protection, quality control and how children can be protected from it.
Michael Portillo, Shadow Chancellor said that the Conservatives should be ‘open to new thinking’ on the subject and understand that the arguments for both sides are fairly evenly balanced.
The Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker has shared his awareness about the growing evidence of the genuine medicinal purposes of cannabis for certain conditions, but so far has sat on the fence about it, disappointing drug pressure groups.
Nick Clegg suggested that the UK needs to come up with alternatives to the blanket prohibition on drugs in the UK. He urges politicians to be brave enough to declare their views whilst in office on the subject, rather than fear any political consequences, only to declare their intentions when they have left office.
With the same passion that Hitchens is against the legalisation of cannabis and Reynolds is for it, the extreme cases will usually make headline news. From the fantastic results to the nil or negative effects. What we won’t be reading are the testimonials of those who choose not to shout about it, but who manage their pain with the use of cannabis to give themselves some sort of quality of life and some pain-free time with their loved ones.
Maybe we’re not hearing your voice because using cannabis is still a criminal offence. Maybe for you it’s not a war on drugs, but a chance to escape from pain for a few hours a day, to have some quality of life and to enjoy some time with those you love. Whatever your politics or stance on the subject, what is clear is that the momentum for reform to legalise and decriminalise cannabis is growing. What are your thoughts?
As I mentioned earlier in the article, you will have your own story. Is someone you love in pain with cancer or multiple sclerosis? Had you even considered cannabis as a possible alternative to pain relief? Are you yourself living with a disease and using cannabis for pain management? Your voice matters, you matter.