Medical marijuana in Britain

England is growing pharmaceutical pot, has an above-ground buyer's club and sympathetic courts.

Pharmaceutical pot plants
On December 30, British company GW Pharmaceuticals began harvesting the first crop of legal marijuana grown in modern England.

GW was licensed by the British government to grow 20,000 pot plants of 10 different strains. Their cannabis compound is in a specially guarded top-secret location, surrounded by high fences and razor wire. Dr Geoffrey Guy, chairman of the company, holds Britain's only license for growing marijuana for medical research.

GW Pharmaceuticals will be doing several years worth of clinical trials with smokeless, whole-plant extracts, as well as supplying raw marijuana to other researchers.

Synthetic or natural?

Synthetic THC has been available since 1986, manufactured by Unimed Pharmaceuticals under the brand name Marinol. Marinol is not as effective as smoked marijuana in many instances, taking up to four hours to take effect, instead of the almost immediate effect of smoked marijuana.

Unimed and other pharmaceutical companies are developing nasal sprays, lozenges, vaporizers, rectal suppositories and skin patches that will deliver THC into the bloodstream quickly. Yet many researchers believe that pure THC will never be effective as plant extracts.

GW has hypothesized that cannabis' 400 chemicals, including dozens of cannabinoids, may interact with one another to produce therapeutic effects. A Dutch company called HortaPharm provided special seed varieties to GW, each bred to contain mainly one type of cannabinoid. Different single cannabinoid plant extracts will be blended to provide various chemical combinations.

The Lords on marijuana

As exciting as this research is, it's sure that the British feds don't intend permitting their citizens to actually grow or smoke their own medicine. Although headlines last September touted UK Drug Tsar (that's how they spell it) Keith Hellawell as supporting the "medical use of cannabis" he actually said only that "certain derivatives of cannabis" might be allowed on medical grounds.

The British Parliament also rejected the recommendations of a House of Lords committee in early November. The Lords committee examined the history and science of medicinal marijuana use, and in a comprehensive report they recommended that "the criminal law ought not to stand in the way" of doctors who want to prescribe marijuana for pain relief or MS.

The Lords were pleased that clinical trials of cannabis are being launched in Britain, but strongly recommended that organic cannabis should be rescheduled immediately, rather than waiting several years for the trial results. This would allow whole marijuana to be prescribed as an unlicensed medicine on a named-patient basis.

However, the Lords report also steered away from backing legal pot for all. "Far from being a step towards general legalization, our recommendation would make the ban on recreational use easier to enforce."

Nevertheless, the Lords report did have a positive impact upon the growing public debate in Britain about marijuana as medicine. The report was condemned by the British Medical Association, which claimed that raw cannabis contained too many other constituents to be used as a medicine, but it did receive support from a number of newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian.

Endocannabinoid research

Medical researchers at the UK University of Nottingham have been studying endocannabinoids, thanks to a ?120,000 grant from the British Heart Foundation. Endocannabinoids are natural substances produced by the body which bind to the same receptors as cannabinoids from cannabis.

The main endocannabinoid is anandamide, named from the sanskrit word for bliss. Anandamide was recently discovered to be produced by endothelial cells, which are the cells that cover the the inner walls of blood vessels.

The Heart Foundation grant is funding studies into endocannabinoids and high blood pressure. Anandamide and some other cannabinoids cause vaso-relaxation, which reduces blood pressure and lowers the risk of stroke and heart disease. How and why this effect occurs is not yet known, but at least a half-dozen studies on different aspects of the question have already been performed in various labs around the world.

Pot smoking up

Pot-smoking is becoming more popular in Britain, according to a study released by the Government on January 29. About 40% of those between 20-24 years old have used marijuana, more than twice the number that have tried amphetamines or LSD. Intelligent observers note that a move away from other drugs and towards marijuana is a wise one for youth to make. Interestingly, professional and skilled workers are more likely to have tried cannabis than unskilled workers.

The Prince on pot

On Christmas Eve the UK Times reported that Prince Charles had suggested to a Multiple Sclerosis patient that medicinal marijuana might be useful for her. The Prince was making his annual visit to the Sue Ryder Home, of which he is a patron, where he had a conversation with Karen Drake, who has had MS for 10 years. Said Drake "He asked me about MS and how long I had had it. He asked if I had taken cannabis. He said he had heard it was the best thing for it. I was surprised that he asked me about it, but he is a lovely man, he is really caring."

Med-pot co-op raided

A week after Parliament rejected the recommendations of the Lords report, their determination to stamp out medicinal marijuana use was demonstrated in earnest. On November 17, police raided England's most famous medical marijuana cooperative, located in Greater Manchester.

Co-op founder Colin Davies, 31, was arrested and questioned for eight hours, while officers removed 28 cannabis plants from his bedroom, and seized letters, address books and details of co-op members.

This was not Davies' first arrest for marijuana; he was previously arrested in June of 1998 for growing 18 plants in his home. At that trial, Davies defended himself, explaining to the jury that he broke his back in a fall in 1994, and now smokes four home-grown joints a day instead of taking pharmaceutical painkillers. The legal drugs gave him spasms, but he turned to cannabis in desperation and found it helped him dramatically. He didn't like buying it on the street and so began growing it at home.

Despite the prosecution's encouragement to the jury that they had "a duty to return a guilty verdict," they took only 40 minutes to declare Davies not guilty of any drug offences.
Courts sympathize with patients

Davies' first case was one of many such cases in 1998, as judges and juries began to look favourably upon medical necessity as a viable defence.

In March of 1998, Richard Gifford, 49, was given a two-year conditional discharge after pleading guilty to growing and using medicinal marijuana. Police had seized eight foot tall plants from Gifford's garden, which he explained he used for pain relief from a spinal disorder and liver transplant. Marijuana allowed him to stop using morphine and pharmaceutical painkillers.

A month later a jury found Alan Blythe not guilty of cultivation, cultivation with intent to supply, and supplying marijuana, despite the fact that he grew marijuana and gave it to his wife. Blythe explained how his wife had a variety of acute symptoms of MS, and had asked him to finish her life. Instead, they tried cannabis, and it helped her immensely. The judge agreed that there was "substantial mitigation" in the case.

Co-op vows to continue

After Colin Davies was exonerated by the jury, he told how he had received "letters from all around the country from people who were sick and dying. I realized how bad things were out there and how we treat our sick as criminals."

This inspired Davies to launch the Medical Marijuana Co-operative with two other medical marijuana users. The co-op was modeled after the Cannabis Buyers' Club in Los Angeles and founded in October. It soon had 70 clients.

"We require a letter of diagnosis from a doctor," said Davies, "and patients are asked to agree to a code of conduct. The drug must not be resold and must be used in private." Co-op patients also received an identity card with a photograph and a leaf from the cannabis plant the patient uses.

During the raid of the co-op, one of Davies' co-founders demanded to be arrested as well.

"Colin has supplied me with cannabis," said Andrew Coldwell, who has MS and is confined to a wheelchair. "I asked him to supply me and he has met my medical needs. I challenge the police to come and charge me." The police declined.

Coldwell says that the co-op will continue to supply medicinal marijuana despite the raid. "This is a hiatus which we will overcome," he explained. "They are persecuting a man who has already been through the courts."

? House of Lords, Science and Technology Committee: House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW; fax: 71-219-6715; www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199798 /ldselect/ldsctech/151/151p02.htm
? UK Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT): PO Box CR14, Leeds, L57 4XF; fax: 44-1532-37-1000
? UK Cannabis Interent Activists (UKCIA): www.foobar.co.uk/users/ukcia

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