Event review written by Nikol Naydenova
In the heart of London, on Great Portland Street, patients, prescribers, cannabis advocates, police officers, and journalists all met together to discuss and debate their shared belief that medical cannabis could revolutionise healthcare. In honour of Medical Cannabis Awareness Week, held at the International Students House, Drug Science and Medcan Support collaborated to create the first ever Medical Cannabis Patient Conference in the UK.
As the audience and speakers began to arrive, they were met at the entrance by the Drug Science team and their stall. This was complete with brightly coloured posters and badges, as well as leading neuropsychopharmacologist and Founder of Drug Science Professor David Nutt’s books on medical cannabis and drug policy. These were available to all ticket holders to take home for a small but valuable donation to the charity. Directly through the glass doors beside the stall was the cannabis vaporising zone where patients could comfortably and safely consume their medication.
The conference room gradually filled with individuals wearing with pride their new ‘Cannabis is Medicine’ badges. The day was built up of five panel discussions, including an exclusive UK premiere of the Canadian documentary, ‘Anything Can Happen’ followed by Q&A with the filmmaker and two family members who featured in the film. From clinicians’ perspectives on prescribed cannabis, to the lived experience of a medical cannabis patient, there was an opportunity for everyone to learn something new.
The first panel of the day was comparing legacy cannabis and prescribed cannabis markets. This discussion was hosted by Anuj Desai, host of ‘The Cannabis Conversation, a leading cannabis industry podcast. Patients who have been prescribed cannabis bravely and passionately discussed their frustrations regarding the quality of prescription cannabis but that being legal made them feel so much safer than previously. Clark French, patient and founder of the ‘United Patients Alliance’, proudly recalled that when he first started advocating for cannabis “there was no one, no campaign, no organisation”. 12 years later, this event is living proof that both him and all the other affected patients are no longer on their own. Applause from the audience signified a real sense of trust and mutual respect between speakers and audience members, reminding us all that this was a safe space for these resilient patients to be vulnerable in sharing their unique and emotional stories. A sense of strength and unity filled the room and set the precedent for the rest of the day.
Straight-talking and honest writer and podcaster Mary Biles hosted the next panel on clinicians’ perspectives on cannabis prescription. Doctors, who had previously hidden their controversially supportive views on cannabis, described the trepidation behind their choice to begin prescribing cannabis. A survey conducted during the event showed that 49% of people feel their clinician is not educated enough on medical cannabis. The relationship between a patient and a doctor involves collaboration, listening, and an open mind from both parties. This is what has allowed for these clinicians to stick their necks out and prescribe, in the knowledge that they are changing people’s lives by acknowledging the beneficial impact of cannabis as a medicine. Sadly, clinicians feel they are risking their reputation by being open about their views on cannabis, but have a duty to help their patients. This discussion shed light on how the challenge in prescribing medical cannabis is incredibly oppressive to both patients and doctors alike, who see its real value in treating numerous health conditions.
Having enjoyed a tasty lunch in the cafeteria of the venue, the audience was invited to watch the first ever UK screening of the emotional and tear-jerking documentary, ‘Anything Can Happen’. It is an educational, informative, and heart-aching film on the need for cannabis in paediatric medicine. It follows four families through their battle to treat their children diagnosed with epilepsy and autism. The parents of these children have navigated the dangerous and almost futile medication options currently available, with cannabis providing them with a hopeful route to transform the lives of their children and thus benefit their respective families. The film accurately depicts the reality of the battle against the prejudice in society around cannabis, even when the lives of children are at stake. A humbling silence filled the room and there was barely a dry eye in the house by the end.
This incredible film was followed by a panel discussion hosted by the inspiring mother and advocate, Hannah Deacon. She interviewed the film director, Chase Gouthro, alongside Dr Jen Anderson and Sydney Anderson, mother and sister of one of the children featured, and neurologist Prof Mike Barnes. Parents, on stage and among the audience, shared a moment of sadness and hope in discussing the difficult lives they live having children with life-threatening conditions fighting for access to the medicine they desperately need. Mike Barnes earnestly demanded that more activism is necessary to push cannabis through to be a frontline treatment. He even asked, bewildered, for someone in the audience to give an intellectual argument as to why doctors are so reluctant to prescribe cannabis, considering it has been described as an anticonvulsant for over 6000 years! This documentary and the countless anecdotes revealing the benefits of this medicine should equate to more than enough evidence for there to be a shift in the conservative and old-fashioned mindset of the British medical profession. These patient stories demonstrate clearly that medical cannabis can provide a better life for patients and alleviate their suffering.
The final two panels of the day were hosted, once again, by Anuj Desai and Mary Biles, respectively. The first was a discussion by scientists, patients and advocates on the availability, supply and choice of prescribed cannabis products. The speakers agreed that more innovative methods of administering cannabis are necessary; buccal wafers, sublingual tablets and other formats of medication may be the way to present cannabis in a way that clinicians are more comfortable with prescribing. The UK is very behind in the process of cannabis legalisation compared with other jurisdictions around the world. Other countries, such as Canada and Israel, have already overcome the barriers that the UK is struggling to overcome. It seems incomprehensible, as Dr Callie Seaman explained, that merely mentioning the “the plant that shall not be named” is still enough to cause a medical professional to shut the conversation down. The panellists agreed that the UK’s approach to medicine has become outdated, and that the government needs to understand that patients have a voice and an understanding of what works best for their bodies.
The last panel focused on the lived experience of five medical cannabis patients. This excellently rounded off the range of topics discussed throughout the day at the conference. It is clear from the discussions and diversity of people who took part, that stigma remains the main barrier to access for people. Patients all around the world are telling their stories about how cannabis has provided them with a treatment that has vastly improved their quality of life. It is, therefore, unjust to put those unable to access a legal prescription at risk of being arrested simply because the UK’s view on cannabis is outdated. This event proved that this incredible plant will inevitably provide a beneficial shift in medicine as we know it today, and that there is real strength in coming together as a community to make positive change happen.