This week, the UN, after considering recommendations made by the World Health Organisation, voted to reclassify cannabis and cannabis-related substances and remove it from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – which features substances that are considered to be highly addictive and of extremely limited medical or therapeutic value.
This is another great step towards removing the taboo around medicinal cannabis and encouraging its wider use to treat a variety of conditions, including chronic and cancer pain, depression, anxiety disorders, sleep disturbances, neurological disorders and glaucoma.
Hoping to help remove the stigma, we caught up with Matthew Taylor, 42, to learn more about how medical cannabis has helped him cope with spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease.
Why did you turn to medical cannabis?
“I worked constantly until 2010, at the age of 31, my life changed completely. I began to experience severe pain in my lumbar spine and in my legs and was later diagnosed with spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease following an MRI.
“My symptoms include chronic pain, neuropathic pain, sporadic loss of sensation in the lower half of my body, impaired bodily functions, inability to balance when standing and only being able to sit, stand or lie down for very short periods of time before having to change position due to intolerable pain. I can only stand or move when using crutches or a frame and have a wheelchair for going out. I also have muscle spasms, regularly being locked in a single position and involuntary spasticity. Tension, extreme stress and a quickly lowering mood were normal, as I was terrified about what was happening to me. The symptoms affected my mobility, being able to move only a few metres at a time before stopping, and every aspect of my life.” [After countless hospital and GP visits, surgery in November 2010, and having a spinal cord stimulator implanted in 2016, Matthew was still looking for ways to relieve his pain.]
“Speaking with other patients with similar diagnoses and symptoms through support groups online gave me a way to help others and to get advice from people who knew how I was feeling. It was there, from people around the world, I heard about medical cannabis. I started reading journals, articles, books and watching documentaries and lectures on cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. I knew I could not afford a private prescription at the time, however, joined in with advocacy as much as is possible from home. My specialists and pain clinic would not talk on the subject, and my GP knew little about access. Eventually, I learned about Project Twenty21 and realised I would be able to afford the reduced cost using my PIP money and put my name down as soon as possible.
“Until I received a legal prescription, I did not use medical cannabis to treat my pain. I was on many painkillers, muscle relaxants and antispasmodics. I received my first prescription of medical cannabis in October 2020. I have been prescribed medical cannabis flower to vape, and I use a CBD oil to counteract some of the THC effects while I get used to the new medication. Once I was a patient, I looked for a support group, and I became a member of PLEA. I have continued my advocacy with them, and will keep going until anyone that needs medical access to cannabis in any form via the NHS can get it.”
Has it improved your way of life?
“The first time I used medical cannabis with a vaporiser I was nervous; however, I was also encouraged by so many patients that had tried it for their varying symptoms and received a positive outcome. With just two inhales, it immediately cut my pain in half within a couple of minutes; nothing I had tried before had been anything like as effective. Over the next several hours, I slowly felt my muscles relaxing one knot at a time for the first time in years; even benzodiazepines were not close to the same experience.
“As well as pain reduction and being relaxed, I was happy, I could concentrate more on activities and conversations, spend more time out of bed and was even able to leave the house several times over the next two weeks, and not just for appointments, which is a huge improvement. My kids [Matthew and his wife live in Belfast with their three children] are happier as I am in less pain and able to join in more, my wife is less concerned about me and smiles more, it is amazing. Of course, my underlying conditions are still there, and some symptoms such as loss of balance and numbness, and so I have to be careful not to do too much as I am still prone to flare-ups of intense pain and immobility, it’s just easier to manage now. Every day I see more improvement.
“On my current prescription I can use up to 1g of cannabis flower a day if needed; the most I have had to use in one day is 0.2g so far. I am astonished at its efficacy, and how many symptoms it helps at the same time from just one medicine. Since starting I have not had to use a single Diazepam and have been able to reduce my Fentanyl patch through my GP. The horrendous side effects caused by previous medications have left me like a zombie, slurring speech, delirious, nauseous, useless; as well as the long-term issues of reduced life span and damage to organs from opiates and opioids. I can finally see an end to those issues, as negative side effects from medical cannabis are miniscule in comparison (dry mouth, so far), and it helps homeostasis, lifestyle and confidence. Life seems much brighter than it did just a month ago.”
How easy have you found the process to access it?
“Since registering with Project Twenty21, I have been extremely impressed with the speed and professionalism of the project team, clinic, specialist and pharmacy involved. After an initial chat, The Medical Cannabis Clinics arranged a video interview with a specialist in chronic pain. Whilst waiting on the appointment, I obtained a Summary Care report from my GP, which confirmed medications and diagnoses, and I self-referred to the clinic by completing a form. The appointment with the specialist was amazing, they were happy to talk about all aspects of medical cannabis, and for the first time I did not feel as though I was being judged. Although they provided recommendations, they also listened to my own thoughts on what kind of medical cannabis may help my symptoms from what I had learned from other patients.
“The specialist met with a multidisciplinary board after a few days and put forward my case. They applied to the Home Office for an import license in my name, before writing the prescription and sending it to the pharmacy. Within two weeks of the appointment, my script was written and at the pharmacy. Unfortunately, this is where the process is experiencing teething issues – it is taking months for the medication to be received at the pharmacy. This is due to many stages of unreasonably complicated administrative procedures when exporting the medication from the country of origin and importing through UK docks and customs. I am still yet to receive the prescription originally suggested for me, and have been using similar, alternative products in the meantime that the pharmacy has been kind enough to procure while we wait, of course this required a new prescription.”
Do you think there is a stigma around medical cannabis use?
“How can there not be after decades of misinformation regarding the medicinal properties of the plant? The main perception of cannabis has been derived from seeing or hearing about people using cannabis in excess to get ‘high’ or ‘stoned’. Most people that have been using it for medicinal purposes have been afraid to discuss it, except with close family and friends. I have heard many stories of people losing friends, family and jobs, even though it is for a medical purpose. This must change. When used correctly, at the prescribed dose, medical cannabis is an extremely safe and effective medication when compared to the side effects from any other medication I have used previously.
“I have experienced stigma from specialists, doctors, pain clinics, and also from people I thought were friends. It is not nice, especially when I have held off until getting a legal prescription to use it.
“The issues that surround cannabis are from its illegal status, propaganda and from lack of education. If people knew about how to consume cannabis correctly, how it really affects the body and how beneficial it is, many misconceptions would be irradiated. I encourage those who know about medical cannabis to talk about it with anyone that will listen, as this will help educate and change perceptions more than anything else.”
How do you feel about full legalisation for recreational use?
“Personally, I have no desire to use it as more than a medication for the symptoms I have. However, I can see no reason to criminalise it, as this causes far more issues.
“I would like cannabis legalised and taken out of the hands of criminals. Not only would this stop pointless arrests, but it will also reduce associated crime, bring jobs to many, provide a boost to the economy, and of course improve the lives of millions of people. It should also be legalised for the untapped potential of the plant itself, whether hemp or cannabis. It can be used as much more than medication or for psychoactive effects, you can use hemp fibres to make paper and clothes, the oil can be used in place of fossil fuels and is quickly renewable… the list goes on and on. I truly feel it is the most underestimated resource available in the world today, and that future generations will scoff at the fact it was once illegal. The sooner it is legalised, the better for everyone.”
Would you consider registering for a Cancard?
“I have a MedcannID card, which is for people that have a legal prescription through the NHS or from a private clinic. It not only provides a way to show your legal status as a patient, but it can also help as a talking point for patients to discuss their conditions and medication with family, friends, neighbours and employers.
“I do understand, however, that most patients are unable to get an NHS prescription or are unable to afford private costs and therefore are forced to seek illegal means of sourcing their medication. This is disgusting that patients are being reduced to breaking the law, dealing with criminals and risking their freedom just to feel better and treat their symptoms. Without the existence of Project Twenty21, I would not be able to afford it either, and will be getting a Cancard if my situation changes.
“Carly [Barton], at Cancard, is doing a phenomenal job at liaising with all areas of the legal system from solicitors and the Crown Prosecution Service, to the upper echelons of the police across the UK. Obtaining a Cancard will provide patients with proof that they have a medical need to use cannabis, however, are unable to afford or obtain the medication legally at present. This helps authorities make a more informed decision when they encounter patients using medical cannabis illegally. I also hope Carly’s Amnesty is successful, as patients should be able to grow their own medication if they prefer.”