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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 13th December 2011 

A very moving story from the New York Times reminded me of some of the people I’ve met who found Cannabis sativa useful for treating their medical conditions.

I strongly recommend you read the story for yourself because I think you’ll find it very sad so I won’t do more than give the briefest of précis here.

A woman, dying of pancreatic cancer was persuaded to try cannabis to see if it would deal with the nausea resulting from the chemotherapy she was receiving and offer pain relief without the narcosis of conventional pain medication that was making her unable to function. On the day she used cannabis, she announced that she wanted to go out to a restaurant where she ate a plate of fish and salad followed by a large portion of ice cream.

Cannabis sativa

Cannabis sativa

But, she never used cannabis again; partly because she believed the lies that she would become addicted and partly because she did not want to expose her family to the risks involved in obtaining supplies for her.

When I was taking tours around the Poison Garden at Alnwick, I could usually spot the people who had used cannabis. Some, of course, would want to show off by making a critical assessment of the plant we had growing in order to demonstrate their knowledge of its botany. But even with those who didn’t immediately reveal their familiarity with the plant there was something about the way they responded to my stories that suggested they were either former or current users.

After the talks, a few people would share their experience with cannabis for medicinal use. Two of those people stick in my mind.

The first was a very well-dressed, well-spoken woman in late middle age who was, quite clearly, reasonably wealthy and ‘a pillar of the community’. She told me that it was only her use of cannabis that enabled her to cope with the pain of her medical condition. Of course, ‘she told me’ is important because she had not been part of any properly structured trial to determine if cannabis itself was the result of her improved pain management rather than just the belief that it was. But, for her, there was no doubt about the medicinal benefits of cannabis.

The second story came from a very attractive young woman in a wheelchair being pushed by her very attentive husband. She told me that she had MS and had been part of a trial of the drug ‘Sativex’ being manufactured from specially grown Cannabis sativa plants. During the trial, she said, she had benefited from greatly increased mobility and had not had to use her wheelchair.

Cannabis sativa

Cannabis sativa

The nature of trials, however, is that they cover a limited period and, when the trial ended, she had quickly reverted to the state in which she now was. Some two or three years after meeting her, Sativex was approved for MS sufferers and I wonder if she is now benefiting from it.

The situation regarding the medicinal use of Cannabis sativa is one of the best examples of the illogical approach to psychoactive substances in the world today. In the USA, sixteen states have made provision for marijuana to be used in controlled circumstances for medicinal purposes but the official line of the federal government remains that marijuana has no medical benefits.

Even though states that have approved its use they have not been able to legislate for a controlled production industry so the concerns about the quality of a product being produced with no standards remain.

For the world as a whole, there are well-established regulatory regimes for substances such as morphine so that its medical benefits are available in a way that takes full account of its potential dangers. Current use of morphine and diamorphine (heroin) is based on well-conducted scientific trials.

It makes no sense that similar trials have not been conducted with cannabis.

Anecdote is not evidence, of course, but in the case described in the New York Times and for the young woman I met back in her wheelchair, anecdote is pretty powerful and moving.