Cannabis confusion: Medicine or psychotic drug?

Cannabis oil has been hitting the headlines recently, but is this fight for a change in legislation a ‘good’ thing or a ‘bad’ one? The jury is still out, but hopefully, after Sajid Javid’s change of stance recently, not for much longer.

I remember 20 years ago when my mother was diagnosed with glaucoma. Her pressure readings were rocketing, with the very real possibility of blindness lurking and her doctors were telling her there was very little they could do. I did my own research and cannabis was a clear solution. But how to lay my hands on some?

Never having had a single spliff I had not a clue how to track some down, or what to do with it if I managed to. After days of tactful questioning - because clearly it was then, as it is now, an illegal substance - magically, a single joint arrived one morning in the post. No note. And to this day I have no clue who my mothers potential savior could have been. And I say that wryly - and am forever grateful to that person, despite the fact that when, like a dog with a proud catch, I went to lay my hard sought find at my mothers feet, I was met with total horror. Too law abiding by far, she announced she was certainly not ‘doing’ drugs, and despite presenting her with the science, and despite the sword of Damocles in the form of glaucoma and possible blindness hanging over her head, she threw it promptly in the bin. Addiction was not, she said, for her. I was definitely persona non grata for a while and my heroic efforts on her behalf simply left me with a totally unjustified ‘drug connection’ hanging over me.

I remember wondering back then why there was no separate medical marijuana licence available from the government - or clarification of the difference between medical and recreational cannabis - when all the statistics show it can make a quantifiable difference to many health conditions. In the light of the decades of research and proof since it makes even less sense. The baby got well and truly thrown out with the bath water back in the day, when the threat of widespread recreational use overrode the fact that it has extensive medical benefits.

What is cannabis?

Cannabis - or marijuana - comes from the hemp plant (its Latin name is Cannabis Sativa) and can be grown wild in almost any climate around the world. Not only is it a very practical plant, with strong fibre that can be made into rope or woven into cloth, but hemp seed is full of nutrients too, protein, amino acids and minerals. Vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, and sulphur are all there too...

The fascinating fact about the cannabis plant is that it gives birth to separate male and female plants. Males of the species turn into the down-to-earth normal hemp plants. The females, however, if left undisturbed by the males, become the mind-altering ‘marijuana’ plants, with an entirely different composition and function altogether. Medical cannabis producers grow them separately because if the males fertilise the females, they produce seeds rather than the psychoactive flowers. Don’t make a mistake and buy the cannabis oil from the male hemp plant (which has smaller amounts of CBD in it) the full benefits come from the female marijuana plant.

Hemp, LSD, cannabis oil, marijuana and cannabis - what's the difference?

Cannabis has many names, which is where much of the confusion lies - marijuana, grass, pot, dope, Mary Jane, hooch, weed, hash, joints, brew, reefers, cones, smoke, mull, buddha, ganga, hydro, yarndi, heads and green, to name but a few. The list goes on. Many of them hark back to the hippy days of recreational cannabis, when people smoked the drug for fun.

There are two main strains of cannabis - the sativa strains excite and are associated with brain “highs,” while indica cannabis creates a state of relaxation. There are hundreds of different combinations of the two, each creating different effects on the body and brain.

Recreational cannabis comes in three main varieties: marijuana, hashish and hash oil. It is usually smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints) or in special water pipes (bongs).

Marijuana is made from the dried flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant. It is not particularly strong and is usually smoked, or made into the cookies or brownies that gap year students are so often offered on their travels.

Hashish is made from the resin of the cannabis plant. It is dried and pressed into small blocks and smoked, or added to food and eaten.

Hash oil is the strongest of them all and is a thick oil made from hashish that can also be smoked.

Medical cannabis

What we are fighting for now, however, is the right to use cannabis of all types for medical purposes. It has been shown to help with a wide range of symptoms, including epilepsy, pain, anxiety, insomnia, appetite loss. As the case of Billy Caldwell shows, it can be life changing when all other options have failed.

The cannabis plant, in its marijuana form, came to global attention back in the sixties, when recreational cannabis was the go-to drug of choice. It was smoked, or eaten, and its immediate effects include feeling happy and relaxed. It made your world a sunnier, more chilled place. It gave you the ‘munchies’, increasing your appetite, magically dispersing any stress in your life and firing up the creative side of your brain. It was a ‘wonder drug’, and millions of people started smoking it globally.

Too much of it, however, over the long term was found to be addictive, as well as damaging both memory and mood. Some people became paranoid; others lost their libido, and became increasingly anxious until eventually the long list of side effects came to the attention of governments across the world, who took action, one after another, and banned it for recreational use.

In 1928, cannabis was part of the UK's Dangerous Drugs Act but in 1971 the UK Misuse of Drugs Act introduced a drug classification system with sentencing guidelines. Cannabis was put in Class B, the middle of three classes, with up to 5 years in prison as a penalty for possession (no wonder my mother was traumatised!).

In 1976, the global anti-cannabis tide began to turn when The Netherlands de-criminalised marijuana. In 1996, California was the first US state to legalise medical cannabis, and by 2017, Mexico had become the 30th State. Canada was the first country to legalise cannabis for medical use in 2001. But other countries held back and getting your hands on medical marijuana for even the most serious health issue is now a global lottery. In some countries you can - in others you go to jail.

Why does medical cannabis work?

It’s basically all about THC (the catchily named delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or more simply, tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). These are the two best known of cannabis’ hundreds of active compounds - the canabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids - that have medicinal benefits. But where THC can get you addicted, there are no known negatives to CBD.

THC is the cannaboid in marijuana that gets you ‘high’ and can be addictive, but it has also been found to have analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. When you smoke cannabis, THC is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream, reaching your brain within minutes. If you eat cannabis your body absorbs THC more slowly, prolonging the effects. Tests have shown THC has mild-to-moderate pain-killing effects, altering neurotransmitter release in the spinal cord. It has also been shown to reduce aggression.

THC acts like a neurotransmitter, sending chemical messages between nerve cells (neurons) throughout your nervous system. It stimulates receptors that increase the release of dopamine, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, but has also been shown to affect the hippocampus and frontal cortex - areas of the brain that control memory and focus - and the cerebellum and basal ganglia, adversely affecting balance, posture, coordination and reaction time. The reason Billy Caldwell’s cannabis oil was taken away at customs was that it also contained high levels of THC, which is not legal.

CBD is extracted from organically grown hemp that contains naturally high levels of CBD and very low levels of THC. It also releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain, such as such as dopamine and serotonin. CBD is never addictive because it binds to cannabinoid receptors throughout the body, rather than only in the brain. CBD products are the ones that can officially be sold as a medical product (if they’re approved as a medicine), or as a food supplement.

CBD oil, without the THC component was made legal in the UK in 2016 and the number of people using it have doubled according to the CTAUK (Cannabis Traders of the United Kingdom). In November 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a study confirming that ‘CBD has no adverse health outcomes . . . and is good for several conditions’. Research shows it helps with epilepsy, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, some tumours, and drug dependency.

It also:
Relieves anxiety and depression
Reduces nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy
Reduces seizures
Reduces blood sugar levels
Reduces Glaucoma pressures
Promotes bone growth
Improves sleep
Fights cancer cells and tumour growth
Reduces aches and pains - from arthritis to period pains
Helps digestion, boosts appetite and improves mood.
Helps addicts reduce their reliance on drink, drugs and smoking

(An aside: a study on the effects of psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) on alcoholism in 2015 found that takers had fewer cravings and were able to stay off drink 9 months later. Similar results for smokers.)

And who do you think is the biggest cannabis trader in the world?

Canada? The US? Australia?

The answer is Britain. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 6.2% of the UK’s population between the ages of 15 and 64 already consume marijuana - which is, at present, illegal.

And the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board lists the UK as the world’s main producer and exporter in 2016. We produce Sativex, the only cannabis product currently with a medical licence, which comes as a nasal or oral spray, and has been approved in over 24 countries for treating the muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis.

Our Home Office claims it isn’t really cannabis at all and that the UK doesn’t export any cannabis in its raw form, so that it doesn’t count! It's all very confusing.

Hopefully, the smoke will clear soon and we'll be able to make use of a drug proven to have so many medical benefits.

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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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