Introduction to medical cannabis

What is medicinal cannabis?

"Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects. But marijuana is not such a substance. There is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality...Simply stated, researchers have been unable to give animals enough marijuana to induce death...In practical terms, marijuana cannot induce a lethal response as a result of drug-related toxicity...In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume...Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." - DEA Administrative Law Judge, FL Young, 1988

Perhaps the greatest injustice produced by the current legislation with regard to cannabis is that relating to its potential medical usage. The usage of cannabis is largely governed under the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 and according to this it has no medical value. However, current scientific research and the testimonies of thousands of people from the past and present fully contradict this claim.

Cannabis has been used as a medicine worldwide for at least 5000 years. It was part of the British Formulary until 1971 when the Misuse Of Drugs Act was passed, resulting in it being banned. The heyday of cannabis medicine was around the end of the nineteenth century, where it was used for a number of symptoms in a number of forms. The excitement of the introduction of hypodermic syringes and injectable opiates reduced its usage somewhat, in addition to newer synthetic drugs. However, in retrospect some of these new drugs have proved ineffective in some people, and have dangers inherent in their use. Unfortunately, the current state of our War on (some) Drugs legislative policies have prevented its legal use, and restricted any research efforts that brave scientists have attempted.

It seems almost farcical that currently in the UK, so-called hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, whilst being illegal to use recreationally, are available on prescription whereas the relatively harmless cannabis plant cannot be used, it being deemed useless and too dangerous to use even under full medical supervision. This is no longer a popular viewpoint. Several surveys have been done recently, and almost invariably they have come out with support for medical marijuana usage whether the survey is restricted to select groups (e.g. Doctors) or to the general public. Indeed certain referendums in the United States have lead to some states (for example California and Arizona in 1996) 'legalising' cannabis for medicinal use. However, it is not a feasible solution as cannabis usage is still a federal crime.

Medicinal properties of cannabis

Cannabis has been claimed to help with a large number of wide-ranging symptoms. However, research has established three major properties which are medically useful. Cannabis is:

  • an analgesic (relieves pain)
  • an anti-emetic (relieves nausea and vomiting)
  • an appetite stimulant (induces hunger)

As can be inferred from the above, cannabis has a number of possible applications in medical treatment. Typically most research and use seems to focus on cancer chemotherapy, AIDS and MS.

One should not limit its possible applications to these symptoms however. Huge amounts of anecdotal evidence and increasing amounts of modern research suggest other uses as diverse as diseases of the body such as glaucoma, diseases of the mind such as Adult Attention Deficit Disorder and until-now untreatable conditions such as certain forms of tumour growth. Recent research also shows cannabis has anti-oxidative and neuro-protectional properties.

So why is cannabis not available on prescription?

This question may puzzle some readers! The simple answer is that cannabis cannot be prescribed for any reason due to the Misuse of Drugs Act. This is evidently not a satisfactory answer. For a substance to become a 'medicine' and thus officially prescribable, it must be certified by the Medicines Control Agency as being suitable. This requires two measures - safety (harmfulness to the user) and efficacy (effectiveness for its designated purpose).

However, cannabis has seemingly been repeatedly proven to be both safe and efficious. In terms of safety, cannabis has never been proven to have caused even a single death directly. Its toxicity level is so low that no human has managed to consume enough to cause a fatal reaction. This is extremely rare for modern medications. Every year, through overdoses, allergic reactions, contraindications and for other reasons thousands of people die through the use of legitimately prescribed medications.

According to NIDA statistics, the ubiquitous pain-killer Aspirin kills around 2000 people in America per year. As it has never been accomplished it is unreliable, but experts have estimated that in order to ingest enough cannabis to die from its toxicity, you would need to have literally several thousands of times the quantity that people would use to medicate or during recreation. Compare these with legal drugs - Aspirin for instance could be fatal (and is certainly very damaging) if just 20 times the recommended dose is taken. As for its effectiveness, ignoring the legal status, time and time again it is proven to help. Thousands of people testify to how it has helped them, and research is continually done which shows significant medical benefits in a wide array of disorders.

As time moves on, the serious issue of using cannabis medically becomes taken more and more seriously. Not only do people go out of their way to treat themselves with cannabis despite the possible consequences of law-breaking, but now a company has been set up specifically to research the possible therapeutic usages of cannabis. GW Pharmaceuticals is now (legally) conducting research into medical uses of cannabis. They have encountered no significant unexpected health-related problems, and are conducting trials with the hope of getting a cannabis-based medicine licensed for prescription usage within 3 years. They will apply for the licence in the near future, and the UK Government has indicated that if granted, they will allow the medicine to become legal to prescribe. See GW Pharmaceuticals page.

In July 2001, Canada became the first country to legalise cannabis for medical use. In Canada, cannabis can be legally prescribed by doctors, albeit under heavy restrictions. People with terminal illnesses, having less than a year to live, as well as those with certain specified conditions (for example AIDS, arthritis, cancer) will be allowed to use cannabis medicinally if they have a form signed by their doctor and two other experts. Unfortunately at this time it may be hard for some people to use it medicinally in practice due to lack of supply. The licensed patient or a named representative can grow cannabis for their usage, but no-one else is allowed to cultivate or sell any form of cannabis for any reason. However, the government has funded a cannabis plantation which mainly produces materials for research purposes and in the future it is likely that medical patients will be able to get their cannabis from them.

Whatever the case, it should be remembered that whatever anyone's personal views are on the subject, thousands of people do treat themselves medically with cannabis. They spend excessive amounts time and money in order to get their supply, without any guarantee of its strength, quality or purity. They risk confiscation, fines, criminal records and imprisonment. Why would they do this if cannabis was not an effective medication - indeed so effective it is worth risking everything rather than use a medication that the authorities have deemed 'legal'?