Yesterday we reported on the newest study into the relationship between cannabis and pharmaceutical medication, after researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria found that patients suffering from chronic pain and mental health issues were ditching their traditional opioid-based medications in favour of cannabis.
But why are so many people making the transition from legal prescriptions to a currently illegal alternative and ditching pharmaceutical medications for cannabis?
The side-effects from opioid-based medications can be serious, even fatal, as they accounted for killed up to 15,000 people in the US in 2015. We found that many people were sick of these debilitating and life-threatening side-effects that the pharmaceuticals were having, and they often outweighed their potential benefits.
Gaz, from Northern Ireland, like many who have swapped prescription meds for cannabis was using the highly controversial Tramadol, a narcotic-like pain reliever used to treat moderate to severe pain.
Gaz told us: “I was using Tramadol for muscle damage and the pain that came with it.”
Kath, from Hertfordshire, had also become a victim of Tramadol: “I was working in the A&E Department at my local hospital, and caught a bacterial gut infection from a patient which left me with a series of problems, and even resulted in me having to leave my job.
“My GP initially prescribed Dihydrocodeine, moving me onto Tramadol. When I was diagnosed with arthritis in my right knee and lower back, I was moved onto Morphine which then continued for 8 years.”
So how was this fully legal, NHS-prescribed medication impacting the patient’s lives?
For Gaz, it became a debilitating addiction: “For the first few months that I taking Tramadol, I was constantly itching, scratching and completely restless, especially in my legs, at bedtime. It nearly drove me crazy!
“It got to a point where I couldn’t leave my house without taking my Tramadol with me. I was becoming addicted to them. The craving they caused was just as bad as the pain.”
Kath experienced similar effects, making reference to the dependence on the drug: “It was fine at first but as I became used to it the GP just kept upping the dose and that’s when the problems started.
“The impact being that I slept the majority of the time and became very depressed. By 2015 I was on a very high dose morning and night and also prescribed Oramorph as a top up during the day.
“Even though I was on a very high dose I was still in immense pain, by this time my arthritis had progressed to both knees as well as my back. I had become a bit of a hermit, I didn’t want to go out because I was so tired all the time and I also started to get anxiety attacks which were horrendous. Also, if I ever ran out of Morphine the withdrawal symptoms kicked in within hours.”
Connor also struggled with a dependency on opioids due to chronic pain: “I have suffered from torn and dehydrated discs in my lower back and have had for the past 5 years.
“On my first GP appointment, I got prescribed tramadol 100mg 4 x day, 0.5mg Buprenorphine and told to rest. I became proper zombie like and soon got very dependent on the tablets, and upped my dose to 200mg at a time.”
Connor told us how debilitating this dependency came, just to curtail some of the excruciating pain he was suffering from: “It took me 6 months to slow down and stop taking the tramadol and morphine, what a mission!
“As I said, I felt like a proper junkie. I went on to a low dosage of Gabapentin and Paracetamol on top of that, getting on for 4 years I started to smoke more weed to help manage the pain.
“I now have epidural style nerve blocker injections into the lower back, and what a difference that’s made. I didn’t want to keep taking tablets as prolonged use of certain tablets can have effects on your organs.”
Tramadol, while a common prescription opioid medication many medicinal cannabis users have ditched, isn’t the only opioid-based medication people have been abandoning in favour of medicinal cannabis.
Adam, from Darwen, told us how he ditched the Gabapentin and Amitriptyline he was taking for his multiple sclerosis: “The Gabapentin gave me suicidal inclinations and I ended up having a nervous breakdown in 2015, in part because of it. It was also screwing with my sleep patterns.
“The Amitriptyline made me unbelievably groggy the day after, to the point I couldn’t function properly. Combined, they made me feel like a zombie!”
These stories could have ended in tragedy. As mentioned earlier, the number of people who are dying from prescription medication is rising per year. In 2015, nearly 2,000 people overdosed on legal medications.
Luckily, the people we spoke to found the safest alternative possible: cannabis, a substance which has never killed anyone. Ever. In the history of the world. (Seriously, how is cannabis illegal?)
Gaz was advised by a friend to make the switch: “I was given some advice by a mutual friend who had experienced similar symptoms as I had from taking this medication.”
The switch to medicinal cannabis clearly had a beneficial impact on Gaz’s life: “The switch has made a dramatic improvement. I’ve been able to get a full proper night’s sleep, and the pain is much more manageable and I’m no longer scratching myself to death.
“I can leave the house without having to worry about the nasty effects the Tramadol has when it’s wearing off.”
Numerous patients that we spoke to referenced how they were using cannabis before they knew about its potential medicinal benefits.
Kath said: “I used to smoke it years before anyway, and had noticed it did help with a niggling back pain.
“While I was weaning off Morphine I smoked cannabis and found it helped so much more, that’s when I decided to use it solely for pain relief.”
Kath also spoke highly of the switch from prescriptions to cannabis: “The switch has been amazing, it really does help! My family and friends certainly noticed the difference in my mood and that I could do more as well.”
Others, like Adam, had been conscious of the limited research suggesting cannabis’s medicinal benefits prior to their illness: “I’d been aware since being a teenager, and I’d had an ongoing relationship with Mary for almost the same time.
“All the negative side effects of the pharmaceuticals have been eradicated now, and I’ve found that cannabis is more effective than them at controlling the spasms and pain which come from having MS.”
However, cannabis is not a wonder-drug like many in the movement would like to believe. It does not cure all diseases and rid patients of all their pain.
Nick, from Kent, who has been suffering from lower back pain for nearly 30 years, explained that while medicinal cannabis has helped him off his reliance on painkillers, it does not wholly remove the pain: “I would say the effect of the cannabis is not to kill the pain, it is more of a pain management system, stopping the pain from being at the forefront of your mind and allowing you to get on with your day!”
One of the main issues which we discovered was how the illegality of cannabis is forcing the sickest members of our society into the criminal underworld of society.
Connor’s story embodied everything wrong with society. He told us how he was having to some, on average, 20G of cannabis a week to help with his pain, which obviously becomes quite expensive on the street. So he decided to grow his own.
“I started to grow my own until I got found with it in my loft, and I never sold it to anyone.
“It was me and 2 other people in the same situation, and we were doing it between us. We met at the chronic pain clinic ironically!”
Connor’s desperation to relieve his crippling pain while trying to avoid contributing to the criminal underworld, which is currently controlling the billion-dollar global industry, has led to an inevitable arrest: “I’m currently waiting to get sentenced for possession with intent to supply.”
“I’m possibly going to prison for which I have to prepare myself as I still don’t have full mobility, I’m still getting tingles and numbness down one side.”
It seems we’re forcing our most vulnerable members of society into an impossible choice between: A) risking dependency on extremely dangerous pharmaceutical drugs, which do not work as effective as cannabis, or B) breaking the law by either contributing to the illegal drug trade (by buying off the streets) or by growing their own.
The people we spoke to were furious about their situation.
Kath explained that she think’s “it’s so wrong for GPs to continuously prescribe opiates like they do. I have many friends that are prescribed a mixture of drugs, I’m always encouraging them to try cannabis instead.
“I believe that opiates do make u feel ill and they create other illnesses because they aren’t meant for long-term use.”
The illegality of cannabis has actually forced Kath away from her medicine of choice: “I’ve had to stop using cannabis because I can’t afford it anymore.
“This is because the amount you get for the same amount of money is less now; what used to be a £10 bag now costs £20 for the same weight.
“I now have arthritis in my knees, lower back, neck and both wrists so I’m in pain everyday but I just have to put up with it, I try to have a positive attitude but I do have some really bad days but I’d rather it this way. I will never take opiates again, I don’t even go to my GPs anymore!”
If herbal cannabis, in any form (be it smoked, vaped, used as a therapeutic balm, or edible) is more effective and safer than the various pharmaceuticals listed, then why is our Tory-led Government spending £361 million every year on policing and treating users of illegally traded and consumed cannabis? It makes no sense, economically or morally, to keep up our pursuit of the most vulnerable members of our society.
The UK needs to catch up with the rest of the world and legalise cannabis, at least for medicinal purposes (for now). We are betraying our citizens, and even using their tax money to strip away their basic human rights.