[Originally published in The Leither]
A lot has changed since 1971; it was the end of Sean Connery’s tenure as 007, and the beginning of decimal currency. The Daily Mail went from a broadsheet to a tabloid, and music lovers across the country tuned in to the debut of The Old Grey Whistle Test.
1971 was also the year that the British Government declared for the first time that cannabis had no medical value. This assertion has since been parroted by ministers on every side of parliament for decades. The Misuse of Substances Act (1971) has been the foundation of all drug legislation in this country for almost 50 years, and while it sought to reduce harm through stringent punishment of both drug users and dealers, it also tied the hands of doctors to prescribe one of the most benevolent plants in all of nature. Just a couple of years earlier, scientists isolated THC and CBD, the active ingredients in cannabis, but subsequent research during prohibition and ‘the war on drugs’ was deemed too costly and too risky for any scholar interested in the properties and applications of the newly discovered class of chemicals called ‘cannabinoids’. Pharmaceutical companies formulated their own synthetic cannabinoids, but they were quickly withdrawn from testing because of their severe side-effects.
20 years go by and in the late 80’s/early 90’s scientists discover the presence of cannabinoid receptors in humans; billions of tiny receptors that respond to the compounds produced in bountiful quantities by cannabis and hemp plants. Every single one of us has this network of cannabinoid hardware in our brains and bodies, and we make our own cannabinoids to fuel it. The endocannabinoid system regulates a vast array of bodily functions and is implicated in almost every human ailment. A reasonable government would have at least allowed the medical profession to investigate the potential of the cannabis plant, but intransigence has long been a hallmark of political leadership, particularly when it comes to evocative, vote-winning subjects like drugs, crime and punishment. Flying in the face of reason, compassion and evidence, cannabis retained its illegal status because there just wasn’t not enough research, owing to the fact that research itself was illegal. It was deemed a more prudent course of action to ‘just say no’ to cannabis because no administration wants to admit that the current approach is not only wrong, but actively harmful to the vulnerable people who are not able to access a safe, legal supply of herbal matter under the supervision of their physician.
Another 20 years go past, and during the noughties cannabis is moved from a class B drug, to a class C drug, and then back again. In 2009 the Home Secretary Alan Johnson declares “we cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy” as he sacks his chief adviser on drugs for daring to present robust evidence contradicting the entrenched stance on the safety and utility of both legal and illegal substances. The political posture of the establishment is deemed more important than evidence based policy. Meanwhile a group of novel pyschoactive substances, so-called ‘legal highs’, are being openly sold on high streets across Britain using a glaring loophole in the 1971 drug legislation. Many of the recipes used to make ‘legal highs’ are based on the shelved synthetic cannabinoids that I mentioned earlier; untested, unstable and resolutely unpleasant, these man-made compounds run amok in young and vulnerable people who are lured into the fallacy that legal = safe. The wholesale ban on cannabis led directly to the creation of something much, much more dangerous.
Within a few years, the government published its new Pyschoactive Substances Act (2016) which attempted to rid the streets of ‘legal highs’ such as spice, and mephedrone. Perhaps not surprisingly, these drugs are still widely available today, particularly popular in prisons, but use is highest among the homeless population.
2018 marked a big change owing to a high profile case of a young boy using cannabis oils prescribed by a Canadian neuroogist. In the face of an impending PR disaster he Home Office relented and agreed to reschedule cannabis, ushering in the supposed dawn of legal prescriptions. A year has passed, and in 2019 we are no further forward. Unless you are able to fund a private prescription, at enormous expense, there is little to no chance of getting cannabis products from your doctor. Recently published prescribing guidelines from NICE basically say “do not prescribe” over and over and over while hundreds of thousands of sick, sad and sore people wait for the UK to catch up with our neighbours in Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, the US and Germany, some of whom have had medical cannabis access for decades without any evidence of harm. In the short time since the UK announced it’s alleged policy shift, we have seen countries like Thailand and Greece introduce their own medical cannabis programmes, and even little Luxembourg has decided to legalise weed for all consenting adults. New Zealand is holding a referendum on the subject next year, and in the background huge investment groups shuffle enormous quantities of capital around the globe, looking for the next cannabis market to exploit for profit. Meanwhile the decision makers in the UK and Scotland struggle to get their head around the notion that cannabis might actually work. It doesn’t always work for everyone, nor does it always work the way you might expect, but somehow, amid hype, hysteria and hyperpole, cannabis works. Not because of plant magic, wishful thinking nor divine intervention, but because of the endocannabinoid system. Google it.
This all begs the question, where are we now? Perhaps more importantly, what does the future hold? Neither of these questions are easy to answer. Our current cannabis legislation is ostensibly not fit for purpose, and the people that suffer are closer than you might think. The elephant in the room is that there are thousands of cannabis users in Edinburgh, who are accessing the plant illegally and using it medicinally. Recent statistics indicate that as many as 90% of ‘recreational’ cannabis users are actually using the plant for its therapeutic value. Just because it’s fun, doesn’t mean it can’t be good for you.
In our shop on Great Junction, we sell CBD products made from legal varieties of cannabis. They won’t get you high, but you don’t have to get high to get healthy. We’re a social enterprise who want to show you how good cannabis can be. If you want to learn more, swing by and say hello.