What do most 24 year olds have to contend with? Job searching, house hunting if they're lucky; living for the weekend if we're to grossly generalise? But what if your entire life changes in a heartbeat and your entire existence is shaken to its foundation?
Clark French was 24 years old when he finally received his diagnosis of Relapsing and Remitting Multiple Sclerosis.
"I went for two MRI scans and they accurately diagnosed my M.S. owing to the lesions that showed up in the brain scans. I was getting all kinds of pain, spasms, inability to walk, talk, bowel & bladder problems; seizures fits; intense pain; balance issues. Everything went wrong at the same time."
Clark had a firm idea of what was wrong with him given his long family history with M.S.. The diagnosis placed a heavy cloak of doubt firmly on the young man's shoulders, but Clark refused to subscribe to his perceived fate.
"When I was diagnosed, it was relief, truly it was. Everything had gone so badly wrong by this point that I just wanted to know why I felt so ill."
The raw visceral emotion becomes detectable in Clark's wavering tones as he bravely tries to convey this difficult part of his life.
"I felt: 'wow, I know what it is, I have this piece of paper that tells me what's wrong'. Obviously, it would have been better if the doctor said that I didn't have M.S., but at least I knew what I was fighting and I could take charge. It was an intensely emotional time. I think I've taken all the positives I can though."
Clark, now 26, was no stranger to the ravages of M.S. - having watched his stepfather suffer and ultimately pass away from the illness, Clark is all to aware of what the condition can do to families and patients. Clark was less than enamoured with the treatments on offer to him.
"Tysabri is similar to chemo therapy. It's highly expensive and is normally a second-line treatment for M.S.; it's given to those who have suffered for 5-10 years, so to be offered this so early on shows how concerned they were about my health. Given the risks, I really didn't want to go down this route, I was only 24 and the harms were too much for me to comprehend."
Seeking alternatives to invasive treatments, Clark reminisced of his stepfather,
"He died when I was 11, his M.S. left him paralysed in the end. He used to medicate with cannabis and was very discreet about it. As a child, I was very anti smoking and used to tell people off. My stepfather used to go out to the garage but it got to the point where he was so ill and wheelchair-bound that I caught him on a few occasions -- I asked him what he was doing and he explained very rationally that this wasn't a 'normal' cigarette. He plainly informed me of the benefits that he personally obtained from using this, as he called it, medication, and how his quality of life improved dramatically.
"I saw first hand of how cannabis massively helped him, he was literally a different person after he had had ingested cannabinoids. When you know someone that well, you can't help but notice the differences. He could hold conversations, look you in the eye, was more aware, he took on some semblance of his true self. By the time he died, he was in a really bad way: drip fed, couldn't move his limbs or neck, but cannabis helped him, it gave him comfort, it gave him the ability to grab back part of who he was. He was a remarkable man, so strong, blissfully intelligent - a nuclear physicist. He worked for one of the top atomic energy companies right up until he died -- he could barely talk, but he was that valuable to the industry."
How does Clark feel having seen what M.S. can do?
"Determined, determined to not let that happen to me and to make the most of my life. I also feel compelled to do everything I can to not let this happen to anyone else. With the U.S government holding a patent on cannabinoids as a neuroprotector, I'm failry confident that what I'm doing is having a positive impact on my future. When I used cannabis in conjunction with my symptoms, I could see the difference. On the days I hadn't used, I was noticeably worse off: I was in pain, the spasms were a lot worse, I had a dazed mind, but when I had cannabis in my system, I began to feel alright, which sounds strange, but to feel even slightly normal is actually very hard to convey!"
Clark is an ancient history and archaeology graduate from Reading University. Coincidently, Reading University has recently published research on the largely ignored cannabidvarin which occurs naturally in cannabis. Scientists found that cannabidvarin works against epileptics' convulsions.
"We have an ingrained image of how medication works, the pharmaceutical industry creates a pill that is a from A to B process, you pop a pill and you get some kind of relief. But, it's a shame that we can't grasp the basic notion that a substance that is helping you can also be enjoyable. Do I enjoy cannabis? Yes, of course, but that's not to demean the very real aspects of therapy that I achieve through my use. We need to collectively address the fact that people can enjoy a substance as well as receiving benefits, is that so wrong, what's wrong with being happy? I'm not really able to drink alcohol as it exacerbates my condition, so I'm also replacing something that most people take for granted in their own pleasure seeking through drink."
With a palpable enthusiasm, Clark now campaigns for cannabis reforms which has seen him hit his local media, and he's set to appear on Channel 4's 4Thought on the 25th of September. Clark has also noted the dangers in the current cannabis market and actively aims to make a difference:
"The Berkshire Cannabis Community is for people from all walks of life and persuasion who want to see changes made. We do want to see a regulatory system in place so as to create safeguards and the most basic of harm reduction emplacements; this now a necessity.
"We can learn a lot from existing models like the Dutch coffee shop model, Spain's cooperative model, or California & Colorado's dispensaries -- somewhere in that we can perhaps build our own hybrid. If we take the best parts from all models, and look at the negatives, we can forge something that will be beneficial for everyone."
Owing to his public profile, Clark has contact with many others who suffer from M.S. and an array of illnesses. Although he's quick to highlight that he won't be forceful towards anyone in making their own decision to use cannabis for symptom control, he does like to offer simple advice for first time users:
"Seek a reputable source, you don't want to buy from the street. The vulnerable are not protected and can be ripped off in every sense. Start small: take little amounts and see what happens; don't just dive right in as many people do. Monitor the effects, take heed of how you feel. Take too much, it can be unpleasant and will put you off. Cannabis is not like pills, you have to work with it and listen to your body; it's not hard to do, it's just the basics and common sense."
Last year saw Clark taking the plunge and travelling to California where there is a quasi-regulated system. With notorious medical marijuana advocates and fellow M.S. suffers such as Montel Williams actively working towards compassion based policies, it didn't take long for Clark to find a new brand of health in the U.S. -
"The quality of life that I got in California was like night and day. I had lab tested cannabis with high CBD; knowing it's a neuroprotector, I tend to go for high CBD strains. Testing facilities are really needed here too so we can measures THC/CBD content, test for mould spores and growing chemicals. The acceptance in the U.S. of cannabis as a therapy is inherent. Over here, it's looked upon with such cynicism and scorn, but, when I sit people down and explain just how it helps me, their outlook tends to be different. Cannabis is always portrayed as an evil concept in the UK, but for balance we have to convey the positive side, and it is there, I'm living proof that there's always another side to a story.
"Most harms from cannabis are there because of prohibition: the cannabis industry is already thriving, it's here, it's underground! There's, conceivably, a way forward in handing the current black-market over to those of us who are disabled and struggling to find employment owing to fluctuating conditions, and giving us the reins to forge a new way based on science. This could, potentially, gift billions to the public purse which in turn can be used for healthcare, schools etc, and all the while giving the industry over to a collective who actually care and have an active cannabis knowledgebase -- we could also provide safeguards and product quality, just like the U.S. testing process -- at the moment in the UK black-market, we have a dangerously inferior product."
It's clear that Clark once more feels the pressure of law; his voice breaks once more as he labours over the notion that he's deemed an outlaw:
"I struggle with being termed a criminal, I'm not, I'm really not. I want to be a productive member of society, but I'm forced to hide. The only thing that helps me is cannabis, and I'm made to feel a second class citizen. I know full well that cannabis is a controversial and contested subject, and I am sensitive to that, I don't want to force the subject down people's throats or have a negative impact on them. I'm tactful. I'm the one who suffers though, I'm predominantly housebound; if I do manage to get out, it's because of my use of cannabis, but, the planning I have to do just to get out - the route I have to take so as to not get caught, it's the biggest stress I have in my life, and that exacerbates my condition so much, and I end up in even more pain. We need compassion, not criminals!"
Clark French is set to appear on Channel 4's 4Thought - Tuesday 25th September at 7.55pm. Clark is dedicating his appearance to 'his hero' and late stepfather, Richard Ramsden.