Medicinal cannabis in society

07 August 2018

Interview with 

Gary Potter, University of Lancaster

Cannabis plant

Cannabis plant

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This week, we’re putting the medical use of marijuana under the microscope. Chris Smith and Izzie Clarke hear from Faith, a mother who is keen to try cannabis oil to control her daughter's epilepsy. Plus Gary Potter, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Lancaster University, explains the history of cannabis.

Faith - I saw around one years old that she had started to have some seizure activity. Eventually they got worse as she got older. When she got to two years old she was having 130 seizures a day. The seizures continued and we tried numerous medications but, unfortunately, they left her with lots of side effects. And at that stage, with Addenbrooke’s, we decided all together that we would stop trialling drugs. Obviously, this was quite a shock to hear at that stage and realising that we’re actually going to live our lives with epilepsy.

She generally is a happy child. She’s loving but, obviously, she’s having these blackouts every few seconds that stop her retaining the information. She did actually start to say a few words when she was younger. It was garden and baby brother, but then her epilepsy got so bad and we never heard them again, and now she only says yes and no. So that’s what we’re left with.

I feel that her world is very unsafe and confusing for her and I just feel that if cannabis was available to us, and we could at least try, then we could see if it works. It would be nice to do it with full medical support so that we don’t have to be doing something illegal. We should all be entitled to the treatment that is available. None of us should have to live with epilepsy when there is a treatment there for it.

Izzie -  Faith, describing what’s happening to her daughter, and how she’s keen to try cannabis oil to control severe epilepsy.

And in this half hour we’ll investigate the story of cannabis, find out how it works, talk to the people who are growing it - quite legally - in Britain, and hear why it might be able to help people like Faith’s daughter...

Chris -  Now cannabis, or marijuana, comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, usually in the form of dried leaves, flowers, and stems. There are hundreds of different chemicals floating around in cannabis, and we don’t actually know what most of them do...

Izzie - ...but the ones that are of interest to us are the ‘cannabinoids’. There are 100 or so in the plant...

Chris - ...But the two we know the most about are cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol - CBD and THC. These are also the cannabinoids which are also present in the largest quantities, with THC is the responsible for the ‘high’ that recreational users of the drug are looking for.

Izzie - These molecules are very similar in shape to chemicals used in our own bodies when some groups of nerve cells communicate... And it’s by mimicking the action of the brain’s own chemical signals that cannabinoids have their effect...

Chris - But what’s the history of cannabis, where did its use originate, and when did it become illegal? Gary Potter is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Lancaster University:

Gary - The medicinal properties of cannabis have been recognised for at least 5,000 years. They’re referred to in ancient Indian medical texts going back to at least 900 BC. Referred to in ancient Chinese medical texts going back to at least the first century AD. It came to the UK around the mid-19th century. It was brought to Britain from Calcutta and then widely prescribed for a number of medical complaints, particularly migraines and chronic pain. It was banned for recreational use in 1928 following international agreements to outlaw cannabis.

Izzie - So why was it banned?

Gary - Initially, cannabis was banned in recognition of international agreements to try and control certain narcotics. International discussions were mostly focussed on heroin, opium, and to an extent cocaine and coca. Cannabis was brought into those discussions just by a minority of countries that were concerned with some of the moral implications of cannabis use amongst their populations.

Izzie - That’s interesting. How have things progressed since then?

Gary - After 1928, the initial ban for recreational use, cannabis remained clinically available in the UK until it was reclassified and prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. The Misuse of Drugs Act was again a follow-on from international law, from the UN Single Convention of 1961, and again, the placing of cannabis in the tightest of restrictions internationally was particularly led by America and a couple of other countries and not really considered by the rest of the world.

Izzie - Is there some sort of scale of legalisation?

Gary - Within the Misuse of Drugs Act, in the UK law, drugs are placed under different schedules. Cannabis is currently a schedule 1 drug. A schedule 1 is reserved for the drugs that are perceived to have absolutely no medical benefit. The placing of cannabis as schedule 1 was contrary to the available scientific evidence even at the time, but was ultimately a political decision. Since then, there’s been an increase in scientific and medical evidence and the current discussions are about moving some cannabis products into schedule 2. Schedule 2 drugs are still very tightly controlled but are recognised to have some medical benefits and, therefore, may be available for prescription by doctors for certain conditions.

Izzie - Is it this discussion of progressing medical cannabis onto schedule 2, what we’re hearing so much about?

Gary - Yes. The current proposal by the government is to move some cannabis medical preparations into schedule 2. Not to move cannabis as a whole into schedule 2, but just some preparations of cannabis. But, at the moment, it’s very narrowly focussed on epilepsy and maybe a couple of other conditions.

Izzie - Who actually uses medical cannabis?

Gary - It’s hard to be sure because, as a controlled substance, people don’t necessarily admit to their use. But research would suggest that thousands, and possibly tens of thousands of people in the UK are using cannabis for some kind of medical benefit. This particularly include conditions such as chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, nausea reduction, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, anxiety disorders, epilepsy, various neurodegenerative disorders, migraines, schizophrenia, even cancer amongst other things.

Izzie - We’ve seen it in the news quite a lot recently so what are the varying attitudes towards medical cannabis?

Gary - Well I think that we would recognise that there are some people that deny any medical benefits at all. They point to the current legal system; they say it’s scheduled as a schedule 1 drug, which implies that there is no medical benefit and the take the law as based, if you like, on the evidence. Other people, based on anecdotal and historical evidence and personal experience, would suggest that cannabis is useful for a huge range of medical conditions. But perhaps the sort of middle ground there is that increasingly there is good scientific evidence as well as anecdotal and historical evidence that for certain conditions, for certain people, certain preparations of cannabis are objectively beneficial.

Izzie - I’m glad you mentioned that because it’s been approved in the US, but what’s the legal situation in the UK like? Are attitudes changing in the current climate?

Gary - Attitudes are changing. We have seen a number of countries around the world and a number of states in America, although not America as a country, that are recognising the medical benefits and are making provision for legal supply of cannabis for medical purposes. People in the UK are seeing this happening elsewhere and it’s happening in some highly industrialised, democratic countries such as America and Canada, and people are saying it’s clearly not a black and white issue. These other places are recognising the medical benefits, why not here. Then of course we’ve had a couple of very high profile media cases recently, particularly around epilepsy. The two young boys with a serious form of epilepsy and that, of course, has attracted media attention. So you’ve got the focus on those high profile issues and the background of change around the world.

Izzie - Given your expertise, do you think it will be legalised?

Gary - We’ve seen suggestions of a movement already to legalise very limited preparations of cannabis for very limited conditions. At the moment, most of the conversation has been around epilepsy. I think that is a first step. If nothing else, it acknowledges that there are at least some medical benefits of cannabis, and moving even some preparations to schedule 2 will open up research into other uses of cannabis for medical reasons. So, I think we maybe will see an increase in the availability of cannabis or cannabis derivatives for an increasing number of medical conditions. But I think we’ll still be a long way off from any discussion about legalising for recreational purposes and the government have made it clear that’s not on the agenda at the moment...

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