Is Denying Patients Medical Cannabis a Breach of Their Human Rights?

Ruth Lemon
Ruth Lemon - VP of Operations

Jul 05 2018 - 5 min read

Imagine you have a rare and/or extremely painful condition that is hard to treat – say, multiple sclerosis, a rare cancer, or a form of epilepsy like Dravet syndrome. All the medications you have been prescribed have several deleterious side-effects, and in some cases even highly addictive. Moreover, some or even all of these medications may not work, or only work for some segments of the population and not others. You are searching for something to help with your symptoms, and all the treatments you have tried have little or no success.

Why do some people decide to try medical marijuana?

Research; street sign
Nick Youngson, NY Photographic; Alpha Stock Images 

Then, you do as so many people have done, and start doing some research, trawling through as much scientific literature as they can. In their reading, they see a few particular terms come up over-and-over again: “marijuana”, “cannabis” and “cannabinoids”. This is because, in comparison to many other medications available, few have been as studied as cannabis. Indeed, there are drugs available on prescription that pass muster after only one or two trials – a lack of vigor that’s rarely, if ever, applied to cannabis.

The patient and/or caregiver, desperate and in pain, decides to delve further. They reach out to other patients who have experience of using cannabis for their condition. They see the hundreds or thousands of patient stories available online. They try and find all the positives and negatives, and come to a conclusion. In many instances, they decide to try cannabis. Sometimes it may not work, but oftentimes it does. In fact, for some people, it is arguable that cannabis has saved their lives, or at least improved it significantly.

Yet, if a patient were to do this, they would essentially become criminals in many places around the world. Were law enforcement to find out, they would take away the patient’s medication and arrest them. Whilst special exemptions are sometimes granted on occasion, this is rarely the case – the law’s the law, and being sick does not mean you cannot be subjected to it.

A prisoner is shown a cage which is suspended from the ceiling; Joannes van Milder; W. Longman; Iconographic Collections; imprisonment; prisoner.
From Wellcome Images.

The spirit of the law vs. the letter

Whilst the police upholding the law is not necessarily a bad thing, it is arguable that they are upholding a bad law. Putting sick people in prison for using a medicine that is illegal is never a good look. In the past, imprisoning patients flew under the radar. However, when children like Ava Barry and Billy Caldwell come under the ordinance of the law and have their medicine denied, it becomes a matter of national news. “How can the government deny sick children the medicine that keeps them alive?” and “How can we keep a substance that helps people illegal?” is asked by everybody. Surely, withholding medication that a person has decided to take themselves and is helping them lead normal lives – with scientific evidence backing their stories to varying degrees – is a violation of their human rights?

Law; justice; law book; gavel; sound block; mallet; hammer; book.
By Rifqi Jamal; from Wikimedia Commons.

In the past, the answer was quite simple. “We do not have the evidence to say that cannabis works for x condition for definite. Until we know better, we will keep it illegal.” Yet, with the amount of research coming out now on cannabis and cannabinoids, coupled with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), this position is starting to look more and more tenuous. Yes, there are potentially negative side-effects, but this is no different from any other medication.

There are few if any substances that have the safety profile cannabis does, including the many drugs doctors prescribe everyday. Yes, there may be some people cannabinoid-based medications are unsuitable for, but again, this is no different from any other medication. To malign cannabis in such a negative way when most of  the science so far has said, “There’s a lot of potential in this plant, and we ought to explore further” is, put simply, a tragedy caused by preferring the narrative over the facts. Denying those who find solace in it is not only wrong, but reprehensible.

There are some legitimate issues with introducing any form of treatment

So, is there any reasonable argument for not allowing patients to access medical cannabis? There are a few potential reasons, including the lack of understanding about the potential long-term harms of cannabis, the lack of clinical trials and a lack of understanding on how the endocannabinoid system (ECS) works and what part it plays in the development of conditions. Perhaps the biggest and most reasonable argument, however, is this: “Nations have the right to determine what medications they allow to be used, based upon the scientific evidence their scientific and medical establishments determine to be acceptable medical practice.” There is a good reason for this, as otherwise some very bad medical practices can be carried out with little evidence and/or backing from the scientific community. Remember also that, for some politicians, admitting that cannabis might have medical uses may well bring them the ire of the people who vote them in, which adds an extra dimension of complexity.

Justice; blindfolded; justice isn't blind; blind justice.
From Pixabay.

These are reasonable concerns, but not all of them stand up to scrutiny. First of all, there are many drugs we do not fully understand the pharmacology of and long-term damage they can cause – this doesn’t stop them from being prescribed when they might be useful. Second of all, there are a greater number of clinical trials coming out the world over. Sure, some of them might not satisfy the phased trials, but many of them are indeed double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments generally showing positive results. Third of all, by keeping cannabis illegal, we are limiting our understanding of the ECS and the pharmacology of phytocannabinoids by keeping cannabis illegal.

To make matters worse, the law as it stands leads to the development of synthetic cannabinoids, which are often far more deadly than their natural counterparts. Then, we have shady salespeople and websites, willing to sell desperate people all sorts of snake oil in order to make a quick buck. Patients are not only breaking the law, but they are forced to go onto the black market, where they do not know if their medicine is safe, let alone contains the right cannabinoid-terpenoid profile ideal for effective treatment of their condition.

Label of Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Linament; snake oil; old medicines; snake oil salesman; Clark Stanley.
Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Linament, from before 1920.

All-in-all, keeping medical cannabis illegal is making governments look like they are living in the past and do not have a scientific understanding of the plant, preferring to rely on outdated notions made up by the propaganda of the 1930’s. Governments the world over seem to prefer to keep it like this and ignore the evidence. Whether this is because of special interests and cronyism or just good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance and an unwillingness to change their views, we do not know. Sadly, the ones who suffer are patients, and we fear that most of them do not have the time to wait for officials to change their mind.

“All Sovereign Human Beings have the freedom of consciousness, thought and expression of identity to peacefully pursue personal beliefs and practises and the right to make autonomous health decisions free from the fear of arrest and criminalization from the state.

Natural herbal cannabis has profound nutritional benefits through the regulatory homeostatic effects of the endocannabinoid system, and no government should dictate people’s nutritional, therapeutic, relaxational, spiritual or creative practices with humanity’s most ancient and traditional source of nutrition, herbal remedies, rituals and construction materials.

People shouldn’t be persecuted, criminalized or discriminated against for choosing natural herbal cannabis.” – Phil Monk, We The Undersigned (WTU)

Written by
Ruth Lemon
Ruth Lemon

Ruth Lemon has worked in Cambodia and Australia, gaining experience in the non-profit sector, education and international development, and digital marketing. Ruth is helping Leafwell to scale without compromising the customer experience and seeks to create a frictionless customer journey. She now lives in the UK with her rescued Cambodian cat and believes Leafwell is improving access to and understanding of a valuable medical alternative.

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