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Medicinal Cannabis - The Solution To An Opioid Crisis?

15/09/2017 11:20
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"Are you high right now?" This was a genuine question I received when telling someone I take medicinal cannabis for my chronic pain. "Aren't you worried about psychosis?" was another one. I was never asked anything like this when I told people I was taking high doses of morphine, a powerful synthetic opiate, which incidentally did make me feel high and slightly unbalanced amongst other side effects. As this is a normalised drug and legal there were no question marks about my using it, despite the evidence that it is heavily addictive with fundamental side effects.

Tabloid readers regularly line up to vilify TV presenter Ant McPartlin for admitting his addiction to the legal pain relief he was given by his doctors for a botched knee surgery. He is a drug addict, a rich man who has everything (except of course the escape from chronic pain) and there is little sympathy or understanding of his situation.

NHS Digital released data in September indicates the number of people attending hospital with poisoning from prescription opioids has almost doubled between 2005-6 and 2015-16. Over the last ten years the number of prescriptions for opioids has risen from 12m in 2006 to 24m in 2016.

Despite this, when someone like McPartlin pulls back the curtain on the impact of using prescription opioids, admits a problem and does something about it; dependency or addiction still perceived as something that happens to weak people.

I was also in the same situation as McPartlin at the end of 2016. Unlike him I didn't go to rehab but went through a controlled withdrawal from morphine at home.

After a cycle accident in 2015 and a number of surgeries I was left with chronic nerve pain and I began a merry go round of prescription opiates which I had no idea what I was getting into.

Like many people with chronic pain the automatic response of doctors was to prescribe opiate based pain relief. It is effective and cheap, but increasing doses are needed to combat pain as your body becomes accustomed to it and the side effects can be enormous as I discovered. I asked about addiction and was told I was an intelligent and educated woman so not to worry.

But as the weeks went on I was gradually increasing the dose as my body built up resistance. I knew I had to stop taking morphine but I couldn't see any alternative so just took more with the blessing of my doctor.

Finally in 2016 a stranger recommended I should see the only pain doctor, Tina Horsted, who prescribes medicinal cannabis, in Copenhagen, Denmark here I live.

Not one doctor has even suggested this to me, despite rolling through list of other pain medication I could take, all of which was not effective and all potentially addictive. Once I had seen her and she really listened to me I began to tough journey to come off morphine and to start using medicinal cannabis.

Although I wasn't addicted to morphine my body was dependent. I started withdrawing from morphine, I began what I call my Trainspotting period. It took a week before I felt the first withdrawal symptoms -- splitting headaches, greasy sweats and sudden hot flushes. I was wishing I could just make it stop, having no idea at this point that it was just the beginning. Week three of the withdrawal was crap, literally. The withdrawals were getting worse, diarrhoea , achy joints, stomach cramps joined the rest. My nose was running constantly like a tap.

But after two tough months I was no longer taking morphine and found the medicinal cannabis was working to control my nerve pain without all the side effects of morphine. It changed my life but it raised a lot of questions from those around me about the legality of what I was doing and the impact on me.

Medicinal cannabis is legally produced in Denmark by Glostrup Pharmacy from natural ingredients and is available as an oral oil or tablet. There is no high as you would experience from recreational use of cannabis and its production is controlled.

Already there are hundreds of people in Denmark receiving a prescription from Horsted in her pain clinic in central Copenhagen. There is now a year wait have an initial consultation with her. But what about the personal side of all of this? Who are the people who are waiting a year to see Horsted?

"80% of my patients have been to at least two other pain clinics before they come to me and have tried many 'conventional' medicines, coming to the point where they are still in pain and are desperate. Many have experimented with cannabis from the illegal market and feel immensely guilty about this criminal behaviour and fear being caught by the police and facing jail time. My typical patient is a 70 year old woman with chronic neuropathic pain from failed back surgery."

There has already been a lot of research worldwide on cannabis sprays and their effectiveness. Denmark will embark on trials for those with Multiple Sclerosis and three other types of patients in 2018 -- spinal cord injuries, chronic pain, Multiple Sclerosis and terminal cancer. These are the main areas where it is thought that medicinal cannabis can be effective.

This is why in the face of the NHS research, the shocking opiate crisis in the US (and one brewing in the UK) and McPartlin's highly publicised stint in rehab for addiction to prescription opioids I believe it is time that the British Government and doctors start to really look at legalising medicinal cannabis. I have high hopes for the future of medicinal cannabis as a more widely available and acceptable pain medication and I would hope to see other countries such as the UK, where it is currently illegal, keeping a close eye on the results of the trials in Denmark.

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