Last week MP for Lewes Norman Baker called for the laws surrounding the use of medicinal cannabis to be reviewed.
The Drugs Minister said he was “uncomfortable” there were “credible people” using cannabis to relieve their medical conditions – but had to break the law to help their health.
Ben Leo spoke to medicinal cannabis users in Sussex and looked into how the drug and its users are treated in the county.
Meet the people who claim to cure and alleviate their various medical conditions with a dose of criminality. From curing cancer and beating the crippling symptoms of multiple sclerosis to fending off Crohn’s disease and the side effects of chemotherapy – a seemingly increasing number of people are shunning traditional pharmaceutical treatments in favour of cannabis and its by-products.
They say the only way to guarantee their peace of mind and physical well-being is by using the drug. But they no longer wish to carry on medicating themselves illegally. It is time, they say, for the law to change.
Cannabis is the most widely-used illegal drug in Britain and possession or cultivation, whether for recreation or pain relief, can result from a simple caution to a lengthy prison sentence.
But Vivienne Sumner, 57, from Pulborough, said current legislation on medicinal cannabis was an “infringement on people’s human rights”.
She has used cannabis oil to treat painful and problematic plantar warts on her foot, which she had suffered with since 2008.
She said: “They were common affliction growths - an unusual grouping of many warts in a space no bigger than a two pound coin.
“The pain and bleeding were constant and unbearable, keeping me awake at night and preventing me from walking and leading a normal life.
“I tried every available treatment but none worked. I spent thousands of pounds on creams, plasters and chiropodists - many of them at some £90 a time. I also had cryotherapy, special socks, shoe liners and different shoes. I resorted to having the lump cut out which was extremely painful – but didn’t work.
“By this time I was dressing it and creaming it three times a day. It was getting so painful and distressing that all I wanted was to have my foot cut off to take away the pain.”
Ms Sumner got hold of cannabis oil – made from the buds of the female marijuana plant. Experts say THC and cannibinoids in the plant allow it to impact cells and offer medicinal benefits.
Ms Sumner said: “I can walk again since taking the oil, without pain and without a limp. I ask what the hell is wrong with the government?
“People are dying because they can’t get cannabis and its oil legally. It’s an infringement on human rights.”
She has joined the fight against cannabis laws with the likes of Winston Matthews, 57, who recently spent six months in prison for refusing to stop growing cannabis at his home near Gatwick.
Mr Matthews, who claims to have just beaten cancer with the help of cannabis oil and chemotherapy, said: “I refused to submit to a criminal market.
“Judges dismissed my argument that the plant is beneficial for medical purposes and I served six months on appeal for 20 plants.
“I beat the cancer with a combination of both the chemotherapy and the oil, which you take orally every day. I just need a liver transplant now and it’ll be over with.”
Mr Matthews said he still smoked cannabis every day to treat other conditions including Hepatitis C and as a “preventative” measure against illness.
He said: “When I was in prison I couldn’t smoke it for five months. Funnily enough soon after I came out I was diagnosed with cancer.
“I ask when are the British government and lawmakers going to wake up?
“In America there are 23 places where cannabis is allowed for medicinal purposes, including recently Colorado, and across Europe all other nations are catching on.
“In Spain you’re allowed to grow two plants, Belgium you’re allowed one, you’re allowed about eight in Holland but not allowed any here at all.
“At the moment, if you’re Dutch, you can get medicinal cannabis prescribed to you and you can take it with you to the UK without hassle from the police.
“But if I have the same medication, I’ll be arrested. Where’s the sense in that? Two disabled people sitting side-by-side – both with the same medication – but one person is prosecuted for healing himself and the other is free to go. It’s backwards.
“If we’re going to have change, people need to look at the scientific evidence that cannabis is a beneficial plant. It’s time we recognised that and patients were allowed to grow their own.”
Current laws only allow drugs firms to develop medicines based on cannabis under a licence granted by the Home Office. One cannabinoid medicine, Sativex, was launched in 2010 but patients have only been able to access it on an ad-hoc basis.
Despite the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) rejecting it for use in its draft clinical guideline for MS, which means Sativex could be blocked from use in England, last week Wales became the first British nation to approve the medicine after health minister Mark Drakeford gave it the green-light.
Clark French, 28, from Brighton, has been smoking cannabis for four years after being diagnosed with MS in 2010. Restricted to a wheelchair and suffering from extreme pain on NHS prescribed treatments, he was given medical cannabis while living in California and discovered it helped him to walk unaided again.
Having returned to the UK, he takes between two and four grams of the plant a day to combat muscle spasms and pain – but admits he struggles to get the ideal amount of the drug needed each day to help his symptoms. He claims doctors in Sussex have refused to prescribe Sativex because of a lack of funds.
He said: “Two doctors in California have independently recommended I use cannabis to treat my MS. My GP wants to prescribe Sativex but health managers in Sussex won’t pay for it.
“Between two and five grams of herbal cannabis a day would be ideal to improve my quality of life, however due to its prohibition often I am unable to guarantee it - which means MS still effects me greatly on a daily basis.
“I don't see why my government labels me a criminal for finding medicine that works “The choice for me is to break the law to be well - and when given the choice, my health is more important to me.”
In July Mr French launched the United Patients Alliance, a campaign group that is calling for a review into the medicinal properties of cannabis.
The group’s first meeting at the Brighthelm centre in Brighton welcomed scores of medicinal cannabis patients and Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, who voiced her support for a change in law.
Former government drugs advisor Professor David Nutt, of the Imperial College, London, also spoke at the meeting.
Mr Nutt said it was a “cruel and dishonest act” to continue to punish British families for using cannabis as medicine.
He said: “The banning of cannabis as medicine in the 1971 misuse of drugs act was a vindictive and purely political act.
“This was compounded by the government ignoring the House of Lords recommendations in 2000 that it should be reversed and even worse by the Law Lords' subsequent removal of the ‘defence of necessity’.
“Cannabis has been a medicine for around 4,000 years and to continue to punish UK patients and their families who use it is an outrageous abuse of process, as well as a cruel and dishonest act.”
Responding to Norman Baker’s calls for a government review into medicinal cannabis, a Home Office spokesman said: “This government has no plans to legalise cannabis or to soften our approach to its use as a medicine.
“There is clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people's mental and physical health. Our cross-government strategy remains clear.
“We must prevent drug use in our communities, support users through treatment and recovery, and tackle the organised criminals behind the drugs trade.
“There has been a long-term downward trend in drug use over the last decade.
“Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have continued to fall during the past three years and people going into treatment today are more likely to free themselves from dependency than ever before.”
Sussex Police said any form of cannabis remains illegal in the UK and any person found in possession of it illegally could end up in court with a criminal record – however every case was assessed on its individual circumstances.
A spokesman said: “We are aware that scientific research is taking place nationally into the use of medicinal cannabis to help combat the effects of epilepsy and that research has also taken place in connection with other health conditions.
“However, these are carried out within a controlled environment under strict guidelines by health professionals.”