Imagine this: a new 'wonder’ drug is discovered, backed up by scientific and clinical evidence, with these remarkable benefits:
In palliative care it assists with reducing nausea and emesis associated with chemotherapy and radio therapy, stimulates appetite for seriously ill patients unable to eat properly, relieves pain, assists with the control of physical movement, protects the brain after damage, elevates mood for patients struggling to cope with illness, relieves insomnia and anxiety.
These properties alone ought to be enough to recommend and have its use implemented as soon as possible. But this remarkable drug has also proven to have enormous therapeutic benefits. In thousands of scientific and medical papers it is shown to inhibit cancer cell proliferation, and induce apoptosis – cell death – in cancer cells. This wonder drug targets cancer cells whilst leaving healthy cells untouched (in line with the latest breakthrough stem cell treatments).
It has been found to be particularly effective for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, lung carcinoma, thyroid epithelioma, lymphoma, skin carcinoma, uterine carcinoma, breast cancer, prostate carcinoma, pancreatic cancer, neuroblastoma. It assists in the management of symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment, and lowers risk of complications following bone marrow transplants. It is also known to have therapeutic effects with respect to childhood epilepsy, bladder problems, fybromalgia, PTSD. The list is long.
Well, you can stop imagining, because we already have this precious drug. It has been around, as far as we know, for over 6,000 years. Yes, as I’m sure you have guessed by now, it’s the precious weed, cannabis. It’s still illegal, even for medicinal purposes, in this country. Its medicinal use has been approved in many countries including the Netherlands (of course!), Germany, Spain, Uruguay, Portugal and in 25 US states. But not in Scotland or the UK, where cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug judged to have no medicinal value.
Hopefully and urgently, legalising access to medicinal cannabis in this country (in capsule form rather than smoking) is under way, but even so, it will be years before legislation is agreed. In the meantime, patients like me who would benefit are deprived of doing so, others do so illegally. One brave woman with rheumatoid arthritis (I will not name her even though she was courageous enough to 'come out’ publicly), lives in fear of arrest. She 'jumps every time there is a knock at the door and tiptoes around neighbours who might call the police’. Her crime is using medicinal cannabis to ease her pain, nausea and inflammation.
In the UK police can issue warnings or instant fines for possession of small amounts, courts can impose sentences of up to five years for possession of larger amounts and up to 14 years for those who supply or produce it – even for medicinal purposes. Our brave woman is considering emigration to a country where medicinal use is legal.
How did we get here? Cannabis has been a useful drug known to be used in 4000 BCE in China. Professor Mike Barnes, a consultant neurologist, produced a report published on 13 September 2016 by the UK all-party parliamentary group on drug reforms as part of their inquiry into medical cannabis entitled 'Access to Medicinal Cannabis: Meeting Patient Need’. I urge you to read it. In it Professor Barnes explains that our brains and other parts of our bodies have a natural endocannabinoid system which helps relieve a whole host of functions itemised earlier which now provides a 'solid scientific rationale for why cannabis has so many positive medicinal effects’ and a 'substantial body of clinical evidence that medicinal cannabis works’. He challenges the government 'to have the political courage to accept the scientific rationale, accept the evidence and move to legalise access to medicinal cannabis under prescription as a matter of urgency’.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said she would back decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use and that there was a 'specific case’ for relaxing the laws to treat people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis. But an urgent call for action has not met with universal agreement. Given the drug's remarkable benefits, it is bewildering that there are enough dissenters to hold back legalisation. Why? The answer is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – the psychoactive component of the drug.
Watching a TV discussion on medicinal use, one dissenter claimed he worried about legalising cannabis for medical purposes because 'people might enjoy it’. Oh dear, we cannot let any pleasurable benefits get in the way, but such is the clamour, scientists are working to remove THC from the drug. We can’t allow patients to get 'high’ now, can we? To be serious, there is a case for removing THC if patients want the drug administered but don’t want to get 'stoned’. Never mind that there are far more dangerous drugs prescribed by doctors and our recreational drug of choice – alcohol – kills thousands every year. No matter.
Interestingly, the history of the weed’s illegitimacy began in the early part of the 20th century. Hitherto, cannabis has been used around the globe for thousands of years as a traditional remedy. Cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the body, the immune system and other organs. In fact, they are involved in a number of physiological processes. That high you get from exercise? Yep, that 'high’ is your cannabinoid receptors activated by cannabinoids that are naturally produced in your brain. So what has gone wrong? Why is such an effective drug illegal?
First, the invention of the syringe did for cannabis in the late 1800s. It was known to be a good pain killer, but because THC is not soluble in water, it could not be administered easily via the newly and highly effective syringe. Later, it started to lose ground to other pain killers, like the easily ingested aspirin. From the first world war sprung the beginning of a concerted effort by governments to control the use of substances that could produce 'highs’ in soldiers, cannabis included, along with heroin, cocaine and opium. Given the grotesquery that was the first world war, we can only wonder how soldiers felt having perhaps the only solace available removed from them, but of course, no-one wants their soldiers stoned, even if slaughtered by their millions in the trenches. Following the war, control of these substances was increased to cover the general population, not just those in combat. In 1928, at a conference in Geneva, an Egyptian delegate persuaded the conference of the 'social dangers’ of cannabis. It became illegal in the UK in 1928.
Finally, and sadly, I have a dog in this fight. I am being treated for leukaemia (and pleased to say, still in remission). That I cannot access a drug without fear of arrest (although around 30,000 people in this country take the risk), and which is being used in other countries to treat this blasted disease and countless other conditions, is a source of interminable frustration. I am not alone. Again, I urge you to pay attention to the campaign for legalising medicinal cannabis. For its illegality is not only pointless, it is irrational and costs many lives.