Britain must catch up in the use of medical marijuana

Published by The Times (25th April, 2017)

Tricia Reed worked for a big chain of chemists in the US, until she became fed up with supplying thousands of the addictive opiate painkillers that have fuelled the country’s heroin epidemic. So she quit and took the job of chief pharmacist at a dispensary for medical marijuana that opened in Manhattan last year.

Now she is proud to see people using their tinctures and vaporisers to come off those opiates, as well as witnessing patients with terminal conditions such as cancer given pain relief and a fresh lease of life.

Yet what struck me most when I met her last summer were her claims about complex epilepsy. Reed said her branch had helped dozens of patients — many of them children — with this distressing condition, reducing and sometimes even ending seizures that were resistant to conventional treatments.

I know how devastating this neurological disorder can be since my daughter is one of half a million people with epilepsy in Britain. She has a rare genetic condition that leaves her with profound disabilities, but it is the unpredictable and potentially fatal seizures that cause most distress. I still hate seeing her suffer them, even after 23 years.

Billy Caldwell is another whose life has been overshadowed by constant seizures, up to 100 a day in his case. His family travelled to the US to obtain cannabis oil, then despaired when it ran out, having seen how it helped him. Now the 11 year-old has become the first patient prescribed this drug on the NHS.

Let us hope this heralds the start of a more mature policy. For too long, use of a potentially transformative treatment has been prohibited. Families must risk criminal records to help loved ones with severe conditions, or move abroad to buy supplies. Research also suffers from rigid restrictions in the UK, although drugs based on the plant are being developed.

This is harmful for a nation with a strong pharmaceutical sector, as well as preventing possible help for people with chronic pain and serious conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Even if cannabis just aids sleep and boosts appetite, this can make life better for a person with cancer.

More than half of US states permit medical marijuana, as does Canada. Germany and Ireland have passed progressive laws this year, joining at least four other European nations. Sadly Britain still prefers to punish people who seek this natural remedy for the crime of being sick.

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