Will Wales lead the way on medicinal Cannabis? — Matthew Hexter
Today there is to be a debate in the Senedd calling for Cannabis to be available on prescription.
Unfortunately, the Assembly does not have the power to change the law in this area unilaterally, but, If, following the debate, the vote is successful, the group of 4 cross-party AMs, who have arranged the debate, hope that Welsh Ministers will push the UK Government to reschedule Cannabis and allow it to be used for medicinal purposes. So, should Cannabis be decriminalised? Does it have a medicinal value?
In my view the answer is yes. The UK Government continues to state that it has no intention of rescheduling Cannabis, claiming it is ‘harmful’. It is certainly not without its side effects and has been linked to the development of anxiety and paranoia, alongside other conditions. No drug is without its side effects, yet few medicines receive the constant criticism that Cannabis receives. The work that the United Patients Alliance and the MS Society Cymru among others have done to bring this to the public's’ attention is fantastic. I hope they are mentioned in today’s debate.
Cannabis is currently a Schedule 1 substance. This means that in the eyes of the law it has no therapeutic value. But in the real world away from legal textbooks it makes a massive difference to thousands of peoples’ lives. For many it is the only medicine that works for them. They have learnt to use the right amount of the medicine so that they can carry on their lives as normal, not high, but not in so much pain or discomfort that it makes their life a misery. Thousands of people, use cannabis daily to ease their suffering. People with conditions as diverse as severe migraines to Crone’s disease to Multiple Sclerosis, need marijuana to live a normal life and use just as if it were any other medicine.
In Wales, we already accept that Cannabis can be used as a medicine. In 2014, the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group approved the use of the cannabis based spray, Sativex, for those with MS to help them ease the pain and distress caused by their muscle spasms. Sativex has been found to work and work well for those suffering with MS. As such the idea that Cannabis should remain a Schedule 1 drug, with apparently no therapeutic value, is ridiculous. What is even more ridiculous is that people should be turned into criminals for using the only medicine that alleviates their suffering.
That former police officers should have to buy cannabis when they formerly tried to arrest people selling it, just to alleviate their pain is unacceptable. Sue Cox’s story is not unusual. The cocktail of legal medicines used to quell pain in sufferers of MS often leaves them, as Sue says ‘like a zombie and as weak as a kitten.’ ‘So weak that on a good day I could just about manage to sit up on the edge of my bed for 20 minutes.’ So instead of pumping themselves full of morphine and other opioid medicines they turn to cannabis.
Addiction to opioid medicines is on the rise. Of the 3,744 drug related deaths registered in England and Wales in 2016, 2,038 of those were as a consequence of opioids. Nearly 150, 000 people were in treatment for opioid addiction in 2015/16. Of course these are not all of consequence of developed addictions to legal prescribed opioid medicines, 184 deaths came as a consequence of Tramadol and 58 came from Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic used to treat or manage severe pain. Prescription painkillers and other opioids are highly addictive, and taking too much of them can easily kill you. Cannabis is habit-forming too, but not nearly as much as opioid drugs. It also has no known lethal dose, essentially you can’t consume large enough quantities of cannabis fast enough for overdose death to become a concern the way it is with for example, fentanyl.
So why am I linking opioids and cannabis? Well one, because they are both medicines, effective at treating chronic pain, but two, because in American States where Cannabis has been made available for medicinal use, the opioid addiction and opioid related deaths actually dramatically decrease. While I am certainly not saying that Cannabis is a cure all and its legalisation will eradicate opioid addiction in the UK, I am saying that it requires more research and for a broader understanding that Cannabis is not just a street drug but a legitimate medicine. The only way this will occur is with debates such as the one happening today in the Senedd and the one that will occur in Westminster on February 23rd when the Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill receives its Second Reading.
Cannabis must move from a Schedule 1 Drug to a Schedule 2 Substance. This move will allow more research to be undertaken into the medicinal values of Cannabis and most importantly it will remove the fear of criminalisation from thousands of people who simply don’t want to suffer anymore.