Earlier this week, in a crowded meeting room in central London, the United Patients Alliance (UPA) convened a discussion about medical cannabis. The UPA is a group of volunteers from around the United Kingdom, all of who suffer from debilitating ailments that could be alleviated with cannabis use. The discussion involved individuals emotively describing the harrowing experiences that they had endured with their illnesses, their anger at being prevented from legally accessing their medicine, and their hope for policy reform.
The event’s inaugural speaker was Baroness Molly Meacher – a life peer in the House of Lords, and the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform. Meacher opened by denouncing the government’s resistance to progress in this policy domain. Referring to the legalisation of medical cannabis in Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of the United States, she remarked, “it’s exciting to see what’s happening internationally, but here we [the government] have been a failure. Britain is getting left behind”. Alongside the prevention of access to cannabis for patients, the law has become an obstacle to essential medical research. Meacher described the situation for researchers – whereby £5000 must be paid for administrative purposes, such as acquiring a license – as “deeply shocking”.
Following the unique perspective delivered by Meacher, from within the political system, several patients delivered heartfelt speeches about the impacts of cannabis prohibition upon their livelihoods.
Jon Liebling, who suffers from anxiety and depression, described how cannabis allows him to focus when his mind would otherwise be clouded. Despite the medical benefits of the plant, the repressive legislation has prevented him from following his dreams, and he is now “sick to the teeth” of how he is treated by the criminal justice system. Jon has been prosecuted several times for cannabis offences, which led to his expulsion from university where he was training to become a psychiatric nurse.
Alex Fraser, who has Crohn’s disease, realised the potential for medical cannabis during his university years. The physical pain of his disease had become so overwhelming that he was unable to get out of bed, while the prescribed medication gave him “permanent flu symptoms” – preventing him from attending classes or exams. When he began smoking cannabis, it relieved his pain, nausea, and insomnia – eventually allowing him to stop using the incapacitating medicine that he was prescribed. In response to the common argument that cannabis makes people lazy, Alex responded that his experiences are the reverse: “without cannabis, some mornings I can’t even get out of bed”.
Faye Jones, who has rheumatoid arthritis – a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting joints – poignantly contrasted the risks of cannabis with those of her prescribed medicines. Some of the most harmful risks of cannabis – according to the NHS – include anxiety and paranoia. These dangers stand in stark contrast to those of the drugs prescribed to her; Methotrexate – which can cause lymphoma and liver damage, Co-dydramol – which can cause anaemia and low blood pressure, and Naproxen – which can cause blindness and depression. “The biggest risk of medical cannabis is its legal status”, Faye argued, “I’m risking my driving license, I’m risking my career, I’m risking my home”.
Jake Barrow, who endures chronic and neuropathic pain due to being born with a diaphragmatic hernia, spoke despondently of politicians’ obstinate refusal to implement change. Following an arduous application process, Jake was able to acquire Sativex – a cannabis-based medical spray that alleviates pain – however it hasn’t proved to be as successful as cannabis itself. Jake continues to suffer in pain as he awaits access to the medicine that he truly needs.
Clark French – a founder of the UPA – and Michelle X, both have multiple sclerosis; a disease in which the body’s nerves are slowly eroded by the immune system. Michelle described being raided by the police several times, during which the majority of her cannabis was confiscated. She was “terrified” about breaking the law for her medical cannabis treatment, despite it being advocated off-the-record by doctors, because of the potential legal consequences for her and her child. “They [law enforcement] have got you over a barrel”, she exclaimed, “It’s disgraceful”. Clark brought a strong sense of optimism to the event – “It’s not a matter of if this will end. This will end. And we are going to make it end”. He asserted that it would be extraordinarily difficult for policymakers to hear the testimony of his organisation’s patients and remain defiant on the subject of cannabis prohibition. “By putting medical cannabis at the forefront, we are showing the human impact of prohibition”, he declared, “We will change hearts and we will change minds”.
Lastly, the audience heard law enforcement perspectives on the matter – with speeches from the executive director of LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK), Jason Reed, and former chief constable, Tom Lloyd.
Jason Reed argued that the “harms of criminalisation” are at least as important to consider as the harms of use, if not more important. He also emphasised that restricting access to substances, particularly those with medical uses, is denying individuals the freedom to live happily and healthily. “You can live in a free society”, he said, “or a drug-free society”.
Tom Lloyd, who recently became chairman of the National Cannabis Coalition, believes that he “did more harm than good” by enforcing drug laws during his time in the police. He asserted that many other members of law enforcement felt the same, but were afraid to speak out against policies introduced by the democratically elected government. He denounced the War on Drugs as a “war on people – the sick and the needy”, and expressed disdain for the fact that police officers are required by law to take people’s medicine; “We are criminalising people who need our support”.
Despite the lack of political progress, Lloyd has confidence in the future; “there is no doubt in my mind that this [the legalisation of medical cannabis] will happen. It’s not ‘if’, but ‘when’”. To ensure that this occurs as soon as possible, it is vital for members of the public – cannabis users or not – to support patients who are unnecessarily suffering. Clark French admits that “we’ve got a very long way to go”, but the objectives will be reached. “Let’s continue to fight!”
Find out more about the United Patients Alliance here.