Cannabis: the medical case for reform
Published by the i paper (11th September, 2016)
Joe Quinn is an unlikely cannabis campaigner. For a start, he is in his sixties. More pertinently, he is a Franciscan monk. But each night before going to bed he puffs on a weed-filled pipe with full knowledge of other members of his monastery. For the friendly friar suffers from a rare stomach condition that led to seven serious operations last year and causes such excruciating pain his screams are heard two floors down. And marijuana is the only way he can dull the agony enough to grab a few hours of sleep.
I met Quinn last week in Boston. He and his fellow brown-robed friars played a key role in overcoming local doubts over opening of a medical marijuana dispensary. Their passionate advocation of the cause persuaded the mayor – a recovering alcoholic who sometimes prays at their church – to overcome his doubts. So instead of relying on grandchildren of elderly parishioners to buy untested drugs from street dealers, the priest can buy cannabis that is legal and containing the right properties for his need.
His cannabis is grown and sold by Columbia Care, a rapidly-growing company run by a former London police officer that already operates in seven states and expects to be growing ten tonnes of marijuana next year. It is among many firms moving into the fastest-expanding sector of the economy: the cannabis industry.
For the walls of prohibition are falling across the United States, the nation that launched the absurd global war on drugs. Already half the states permit medical marijuana, with three more voting whether to follow suit in November. Another five hold ballots on recreational use, debating whether to join the four trailblazers while neighbouring Canada also prepares legalisation.
Like many people, I assumed medical marijuana was merely a way of sneaking through a form of legalisation. Certainly, in some states this is the case; I noticed many buyers of the cannabis bud and brownies in Boston were in their twenties and thirties. Yet there is growing interest in the plant’s medicinal qualities – and even in Colorado, the first state to legalise personal use at the start of 2014, the number of registered medical users remains little changed. It may not offer confirmed cure, but there are thousands more patients such as Quinn who swear it has helped them cope with serious conditions.
Although cannabis remains illegal at federal level, creating all sorts of strange problems for this burgeoning industry when it comes to banking, cultivation and insurance, President Barack Obama just loosened rules on research. Pharmaceutical companies hate the idea, since prescriptions of pain-killers and several other profitable drugs are significantly lower in states permitting medical marijuana. And I was struck when visiting Columbia Care’s Manhattan dispensary by a conversation with its chief pharmacist, whose attitudes had been transformed by recent experiences.
Tricia Reed told me she left her previous job at a major chain of chemists because she was fed up with handing out hundreds of powerful opiate painkillers blamed for the heroin epidemic afflicting America. Yet at first she was embarrassed to tell friends of her new job pushing marijuana products. But no longer. For she has seen a stream of patients with conditions such as cancer and multiple sclerosis and people in crippling pain find relief from the tinctures and vaporisers available.
The tales she told me were fascinating. They are anecdotal, of course, since research into this drug has been stymied by its illegality – although few stoners would be surprised by stories of appetite enhancement and sleep assistance. Yet I was most struck by hearing Reed tell me that in her one outlet alone they had helped 100 cases of complex epilepsy, reducing and even ending seizures resistant to conventional treatments and tormenting lives. I heard the same stories echoed elsewhere.
This was especially resonant since my daughter suffers from complex epilepsy. She has a rare genetic condition called CDKL5 that leaves her blind, unable to walk or talk and in need of 24-hour care. Yet it is the wretched epilepsy that causes her most distress; even now, after 22 years of daily occurrence, I find them horrible to watch as she screams, her limbs flail and she looks alarmed. Then after administration of a strong sedative, she may sleep for hours.
Who knows if cannabis might contain something that could help? There are drugs based on the plant being developed, including by British companies, but research is constrained and the medicine costly. There are cases of families moving abroad to find help, just as there are of people in pain going to Holland to buy cannabis. Meanwhile Germany is set to be the next nation to legalise medicinal cannabis, joining at least 25 others around the world recognising state regulation is better than a free market in drugs run by gangsters.
Privately most British politicians accept the case for reform; publicly, they remain stuck in the past for pathetic fear of backlash. This week the all-party group for drug policy reform publishes a review of evidence for medical usage. It is expected to find a strong case for licensed cannabis products – not just in chronic pain management and curbing effects of chemotherapy, but in possibly helping a huge range of difficult conditions from Parkinson’s disease through to post-traumatic stress and epilepsy.
Forget the counter-culture: cannabis is not just about students wanting to get stoned, but about potentially helping those such as my daughter. So is it too much to hope Britain might soon see the light?