Last month, Jeff Ditchfield – founder of the activist group Bud Buddies – gave a cannabis extract to the parents of 16 children who suffer from various illnesses.
What Jeff was doing was technically legal: the primary active ingredient in his cannabis preparation was THCa, a lesser known compound of the cannabis plant, which isn't banned in the UK. It's not the first time he has supplied THCa in public; in fact, he was previously arrested for doing so and is still on bail for it – but claims the case isn't going anywhere because he hasn't actually broken the law. He also says he doesn't intend to stop, because many desperate parents depend on him.
THCa was popularised relatively recently by Californian company Guild Extracts, the first cannabis company to produce and commercially sell 99.9 percent THCa crystalline – a product that looks like crystal meth, but is far from it. THCa is essentially the non-psychoactive form of THC, but heat and other environmental changes can cause THCa to degrade into THC – the illegal stuff that gets you high.
The Home Office clarified that, indeed, "THC-a as an isolated substance, in its pure form, would not be controlled under the [Misuse of Drugs Act/Misuse of Drugs Regulations]." However, "It is readily converted to THC, which is a controlled schedule 1 substance. So a substance containing THC-a could well become controlled by virtue of active or passive conversion or synthesis, including within the body if ingested."
It has been ten months since Jeff was arrested, yet his status remains as "released pending further investigation". Last week he submitted an official complaint regarding his treatment and lack of clarity in his proceedings. "Charge me or drop everything are their choices," he told me. "If I am charged I will take the case to Crown Court. If they decide no further action, I will sue them for compensation regarding my unlawful detention and assault."
Even though the government legalised medical cannabis at the beginning of November, on the ground, progress has been extremely slow – almost non-existent. The first reported UK medical cannabis prescription was given to two-year-old Jorja Emerson from Northern Ireland. She has up to 30 seizures each day, which could be dramatically reduced with the right cannabis-based medicines – yet her parents have had no luck actually obtaining any medicine, because no pharmacy in the UK currently holds a license to sell it.
Last week, Norman Lamb backed introducing regulation of the production, distribution and sale of cannabis in the UK, but his bill in the House of Commons was rejected, demonstrating the strong resistance against cannabis that still exists in Parliament.
This lack of action, coupled with the nonsensical intricacies of the law surrounding cannabis, leave parents who treat their children with cannabis-based medicines stuck and confused. Some cannabis products are legal but inefficient; some are legal but unavailable; many aren't legal at all; and some, like THCa, can become illegal in your pocket or inside your body.
Understanding these laws is crucial to the parents who met with Jeff. They are understandably worried about the risk of intrusion from authorities, so Jeff's Bud Buddies organisation provides as much advice as they can, as well as helping parents obtain cannabis products for their children.
I spoke to the mother of a seven-year-old boy from Wales, who has treated her heavily epileptic son with cannabis-based medicines since March; THCa is a key part of the medicine cabinet. She asked to stay anonymous because she's worried about social services taking away her sons. Up until six months ago, one of her sons, Eddie, had five types of different seizures around 50 times a day. Since he's been taking cannabis-based medicines, that number has been reduced to three or four times a day. He is also now only taking one of four of his prescribed medicines, saving the NHS a whole load of money, as his mother points out.
"It's shocking, upsetting and absolutely draining that I have to play doctor. But the truth is, it has been worth it. I know my son better than anyone else, and I have seen the results firsthand," she told me, adding that her son now makes eye contact, rolls around, communicates, smiles and presses buttons – all things he didn't do before March. She tells me his school is very happy with his engagement, and soon after breaks into tears. I can't tell if its sadness or joy, maybe a mix of both. It's clear she is isolated and hasn't spoken so freely about these details of her life before.
I asked her why she hasn't approached the government or medical professionals for help sourcing legal cannabis medicine for her son, such as the Epidiolex produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, specifically developed for epilepsy. "That medicine is completely CBD-based," she said. "Firstly, I can buy much stronger and more efficient CBD on the high street than what could be prescribed. More importantly, CBD works for some less severe forms of epilepsy, but for Eddie, he also needs THC and THCa for a full treatment."
Her conclusions are backed by a study which shows that various forms of epileptic seizures can be prevented through the use of THCa – and interestingly, the needed dose of THCa is up to 100 times smaller than CBD when used for the same purpose. Another study shows that THCa is very effective in treating nausea in rats, while other studies have shown that it could be effective for the treatment and prevention of digestive disorders.
"I don't smoke the stuff. I don't care if people do, but I'm not interested. For me, it's about the medicine, it's about my son," said Eddie's mother. "And I don't care what people say – any mother would do the same. Even if it was the Queen."
She stressed to me that she usually abides by the law, but in this case, she simply can’t. "I'm not doing this as an activist, to be honest. I’m not doing this as a rebel. I’m not doing this to put a finger up to the authorities. I’m not doing this for anyone but my son; I want him to have the best quality of life that the world can offer him."
According to Jeff, cases like this are widespread across the country. "On Saturday we were approached by mothers, from all over the country, who have been turned down by the GPs and special panels for access to THCa for their children," he said. "Many parents have told me, not only do they fear losing their child to a terminal illness, they also fear losing their child to social services. They cannot risk growing cannabis, which is illegal under MDA, so here at Bud Buddies we take that risk off them. However, the THCa preparation we produce from the illegal plants is in itself legal, so they are in a safe zone."
Although no one appears to be selling THCa commercially in the UK at the moment, there is no law stopping anyone doing so. It's only a matter of time before it happens, and due to the variety of claims being made about it, it has the potential to become the figurehead of another health trend like CBD (the cannabinoid cousin that is also legal and non-psychoactive). The name "THCa" is close enough to its illegal counterpart that it may be putting off potential cannabis entrepreneurs – as well as the obvious fact that, if not stored properly, it could become illegal.
But all that might change soon enough. One strawberry banana THCa smoothie to go, please.