Meeting Scotland's Illegal DIY Weed Doctors
Medical cannabis isn't legal in the UK, but that doesn't stop these two home pharmacists from processing it into oils and capsules and giving it to sick people.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK
This past year has been kind to cannabis. Bar the bi-monthly scare stories from Britain's gutter press, Western media seems to have had a sudden change of heart when it comes to weed. Gone are the claims that one toke will turn you into a paranoid spree killer; in are reports on the plant's medicinal benefits. These reports show that cannabinoids (a set of chemical compounds active in cannabis) can be utilized to treat or alleviate the symptoms of ailments from epilepsy to cancer.
Unfortunately, if you live in the UK or most places in the US, buying the bud that could treat seizures or ease the suffering experienced by cancer patients is still very much illegal. That doesn't necessarily stop anyone from doing it, but it does make the whole ordeal far more strenuous to undertake than it would be if you resided in, say, Canada, or Colorado, or Israel. (Or any place where legislators have decided that decriminalizing medical weed and helping those in pain is probably a better vibe than punishing them for being in possession of some leaves.)
Abigail and Sarah are originally from Maine, which permits the use of medical cannabis, but now live in Edinburgh. Abigail was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) two years ago and was prescribed a number of drugs to help treat the discomfort and fatigue she experiences. However, the anti-inflammatories she was given gave her ulcers, and a bad reaction to the steroid Prednisone led to her being hospitalized for pancreatitis.
Sativex, a drug made with cannabis derivatives, is licensed in the UK, and although it "tastes awful," it did help with Abigail's pain when she tried it. Problem is, because it's not available on the NHS, the exorbitant asking price of $720 for three bottles (you have to buy it in threes for some reason) forced her to go for the more affordable, though considerably less legal, option: cannabis.
As inhaling burning plant matter isn't exactly the most proactive thing to do in the pursuit of good health, Abigail and Sarah decided to set up a "coven" in their Edinburgh flat. There, they process cannabis for medical purposes, turning it into oral capsules or making an oil that can be added to food or dissolved in the bath to help treat skin conditions.
All of those are obviously far more preferable methods of ingestion for a first-time medicinal user than rolling up whatever their teenage son could get his hands on in the back seat of a stranger's Micra. Which is fortunate, because after Abigail's diagnosis she and Sarah realized that a number of their friends also suffer from chronic diseases that can be treated with cannabis, so offered their help, enlightening those who'd previously relied on chemically-synthesized pharmaceuticals.
"I don't ever accept any money for the products we make," says Abigail. "Sometimes people bring me their own stuff and I'll process it for them, and if people don't have access to their own supply I'll give them a little. But money exchanging hands... that's too much like dealing for my personal comfort. Mind you, I doubt that would save me if it went to court."
Abigail and Sarah welcome my photographer Nick and I with two bowls of popcorn: one plain, the other coated in cannabis oil. It's immediately clear they're on edge, aware that they've just let a journalist and a man with a camera in on the illegal operation being run out of their home. Their names have been changed for this article, and although they're happy for their products to be photographed, they make sure that we won't give too many details away or take any pictures that could lead to their flat being identified.
Also present is Helen, one of their "patients," who suffers from chronic migraines. "I tried all the things [the doctors] gave me," she says, when I ask why she turned to Abigail and Sarah for help. "Beta-blockers gave me asthma and opiates just made me really sick. Cannabis is literally the only thing that gives me relief. It doesn't make the headaches go away, but it takes the pain down a notch or two."
She mentions the stigma attached to cannabis. "If I could take opiates I imagine I'd be taking a load by now, and no one would judge me for it. But with cannabis, if you do it every day you're seen as a layabout, as a stoner, even if it's the only thing that allows you to function."
Abigail says she's going to show us how her and Sarah go about making their medicine. Blitzing an ounce in a food processor, she transfers the weed to the oven, where it needs to cook at a certain temperature for the THC to be activated.
While we wait, I ask whether anyone there actively campaigns for the decriminalization of cannabis. "I've been really hesitant to get involved," says Abigail, "because in many of the campaign groups there's this prejudice against recreational users. I identify as a medical user, but I don't want to distance myself from others in the way that they do. I fully support recreational use, especially as we have high levels of alcoholism in this country."
"Britain would be a much mellower, much more cheerful country if recreational use were legal," says Sarah.
"Yeah, I was really disappointed that we didn't get independence in Scotland, because a brand new country... you know, we would have had so much more control over drug laws," adds Abigail.
Taking the weed out of the oven, Abigail transfers it to two jars full of coconut oil. The containers are sealed and placed in a slow cooker, which is set to "warm" for the next 24 hours. We leave, ready to come back the following night.
In the meantime, I speak to Clark French of United Patients Alliance. An MS sufferer, Clark uses cannabis medicinally himself, and tells me about other operations similar to the Edinburgh "coven" currently in place throughout the UK.
"People are forced to do it because of the law," he says. "In a place where it's legal, you can go to dispensaries and it's taxed and regulated by the state. But here, people are forced to sneak around the black market. At United Patients Alliance we see a real cry out for [medical cannabis] on social media. People have read the studies and the reports, and they see that this is something that may help them, but often don't know where to get it.
"I know a fair amount of people [creating cannabis capsules, etc] for personal use, and maybe giving a little to friends who are also medical patients," he continues. "In United Patients Alliance we have members with MS, cancer, diabetes, Crohn's, anxiety, depression, autoimmune conditions... cannabis helps every one of these patients."
Back at Abigail and Sarah's, we watch as the oil is retrieved from the slow cooker and drained into a jug through a pair of clean tights.
Abigail places empty half-capsules into what looks a bit like a tiny egg box, before injecting a splash of the oil into each one. "I love this bit," she says. Closing the box, the half-capsules on its lid line up into place, forming neat, complete pills. She takes the doses out and lays out another row of pellets.
"This much oil makes a lot of capsules," she smiles.
Abigail and Sarah are doing what they can for their immediate local community, but there's only so much risk they can assume: something needs to change on a national level. However, while attitudes appear to be shifting in the US, where a number of families are relocating to Colorado to seek non-psychoactive cannabis to treat their seriously ill children, the UK remains in exactly the same place it has been for decades.
In April of this year the Conservative party think tank Bright Blue recommended reform of Britain's cannabis laws. Although the news was greeted enthusiastically by pro-decriminalization campaigners, it doesn't seem like the Tories paid any attention. That worry is compounded by the fact that David Cameron dismissed MPs' calls for a Royal Commission into decriminalization in 2012.
For his part, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for "less knee-jerk prejudice" toward drug use, backing a report that suggested the UK should at least consider the possibility of legalizing cannabis. Only, nobody listens to Nick Clegg, and the Home Office remains stubbornly adamant that their policy of criminalizing people for taking drugs is the best option available.
"It's a pity the UK is so backwards when it comes to this," says Abigail. "You follow US policy in so many things--so many dreadful things--so why not this?"
While groups such as United Patients Alliance continue to pressure the government, it doesn't bode well that those with the most amount of power are refusing to even think about thinking about drug reform. Plus, talking about drugs, especially the out-and-out backing of legalization, is not a vote winner, meaning it's unlikely medical cannabis will be given the kind of attention needed to start a meaningful discussion around the topic.
So, instead, those in the UK who could truly benefit from medical cannabis are left with little option but to buy it on the street or have a crack at growing it themselves. Unfortunately, both of those options put them in danger of prosecution.
As Abigail wrote to me in an email a couple of days after our visit, "Dragging disabled people through the courts for using a medicine that is recognized around the world is inhumane and absurd. We spent a lot of time joking around and chatting to you guys, but really, the situation we're in is intensely cruel."
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