Why I Support Cannabis Law Reform

It shocks a lot of people, given my previous employment as a NSW Police Superintendent, to learn that I support law reform in relation to Cannabis. There’s an assumption that all police oppose drug law reform. This is incorrect. Police see first hand the consequences of ‘the war on drugs’ and the futility of an enforcement based approach. Many wonder if we shouldn’t have the same kind of shift that happened many years ago with alcohol. Remember when ‘drunks’ used to get locked up for the night? Now excess alcohol consumption is considered a health issue.

In July last year I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It’s more aggressive that other forms of breast cancer and has a worse prognosis.

As a consequence of my diagnosis I’ve been researching medical cannabis. I’ve discovered that breast cancer, particularly triple negative breast cancer, might respond to treatment with cannabis.

I’ve spent many hours watching YouTube videos of people claiming their cancer was completely cured using cannabis oil (also called ‘Rick Simpson Oil’) and I’ve waded through several dozen research papers. I think those claiming that cannabis kills cancer need to modify their claim to ‘cannabis kills some cancers’ and I do wish they didn’t feel the need to completely denigrate all forms of mainstream treatment, but it’s very clear that there’s a growing body of evidence to support their claims.

If you’d like a short film on the subject then google ‘Run From the Cure’ or ‘Cannabis and Cancer’. If you’d like a quick summary from a reputable source, including plenty of research citations, then have a look at this: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page4

I support any reforms to our legislation that will make cannabis available for medical use.

You will appreciate that given my background and my long history of opposing illegal drug use, I have not come easily to this decision. The evidence is compelling. Cannabis, in some circumstances, kills some cancers. It also helps people cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and provides better palliative pain relief for some people than the alternatives.

I’ve been following, with interest, the work of the parliamentary committee into medical cannabis use. The Police Force, via The Commander of the NSW Police Drug Squad, Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, expressed concerns that making cannabis medically available would increase illegal drug use. Their concerned that it will ‘leak’ into the community.

In spite of police force opposition, the committee unanimously recommended that cannabis should be made legally available to terminally ill people. Unfortunately, the State Government rejected the committee’s recommendations. There’s a bucket of words they used to defend their decision but it’s just pollie-speak so  I won’t insult your intelligence or waste your time quoting it. After appointing a committee to wade through the mountains of evidence and listen to patients, doctors, advocates and detractors the committee did what they were supposed to do and made evidence-based recommendations. For political reasons their recommendations were rejected.

I know that these changes would only have been of benefit to me if (when) I am close to death but having seen my father’s reaction to morphine (paranoia, anorexia and feeling like he had insects crawling under his skin) prior to his death from cancer, I know that would be a big improvement on what’s currently available in palliative care.

Here’s my best argument in support of legal medical use:

I do not dispute that cannabis is abused but the evidence is clear that it provides some people a better and safer form of pain relief than commercially available drugs. It has less side effects and is better tolerated.

Medically available pain killers are also the subject of wide spread abuse, but we do not make them illegal on that basis. These drugs are stronger and more dangerous that cannabis, and overdose can be fatal.

It seems unreasonable to deny terminally ill patients a safe form of medication because of the abuse by some people, when drugs that are far more dangerous are legally available in spite of abuse. It also demonstrates a chronic lack of compassion.

Prohibition does not prevent drug abuse (or we wouldn’t need a drug squad). Legalisation for a specific section of the community does not undermine enforcement. As an example, consider steroids.  They are widely abused by body builders but their benefits to sick people mean that we can still get them on prescription. They are not banned just because some people misuse them.

I would argue that the same ‘greater good’ standard should apply with regard to medical cannabis. The benefits of cannabis to critically ill people outweigh the risks associated with illegal use.

I would add that cannabis abuse, unlike pharmaceutical abuse, is never fatal.

Here is my best argument in response to Commander Nick Bingham’s concerns expressed to the committee: That there is a danger of ‘leakage’ into the community and an increase in cannabis use:

The current legislation is not preventing sick people from using cannabis. Spend some time in the waiting room of any oncologist and it isn’t long before people are telling you about how they purchased their vaporiser or where they get their cannabis. In my case, these people are middle-aged women with breast cancer and no previous history of drug abuse. Some of them talk about how they almost gave up chemotherapy and then found cannabis relieved their chronic nausea.

Go online and it’s not too difficult to locate people in other jurisdictions that are happy to offer you cannabis products, and happy to send them into this jurisdiction. There are several sites promoting ‘Rick Simpson’s Oil’ and several more extolling the virtues of cannabis for curing everything from multiple sclerosis to epilepsy. There is information on making your own cannabis oil and advice on how to locate suppliers.

For those unencumbered by a twenty year police history and the accompanying respect for the rule of law, cannabis and cannabis products are easily obtained. Many of the people involved in the production and distribution of cannabis products do so out of compassion. Some of them don’t even ask for payment. There’s a cluster of different communities out there, all sharing names, advice and precautions. If you wanted to obtain cannabis oil to treat cancer you could probably do so within a week, just by roaming Facebook and asking politely. Assuming you couldn’t get it locally.

In spite of my background, I’ve had three different friends offer to supply me with cannabis (much to my surprise). It turns out that it is widely used as a recreation drug by people not usually associated with drug abuse. You wouldn’t pick any of these people as ‘dope smokers’. I was fortunate. I did not have nausea with my chemotherapy. If I had been so ill that I couldn’t eat and cannabis relieved this, would I have used it? Absolutely.

Cannabis seed is also easy to find and easy to import. The internet has all of the information you need to successfully grow your own, or to find someone to supply you. There’s even ‘medical seeds’ available, with lower THC (the stuff that gets you high) and higher CBD. Contrary to some people’s views, those using medical cannabis generally want to avoid the recreational effects.

Ask any high school teacher about the availability of cannabis for recreational use. Do you know what they’ll tell you? Kids have no trouble getting it if they want it.

So my strongest argument against Nick’s claim is this: the legislation is unlikely to cause ‘leakage’ into the community because cannabis is already so widely available that the change in legislation will have little impact upon supply. What it will change is the criminalisation of patients and their carers.

I appreciate that this is not a politically palatable response but it is the truth.

Of course, not all of the people offering cannabis oil or cannabis products are genuine. Because people wishing to use cannabis oil need to break the law to do it they are easy prey for criminals. Fortunately, the Facebook community groups are very good at naming and exposing fraudulent sellers, but you need to be a member of those groups to access that information. A lot of people searching for cannabis oil on the internet are desperate. They don’t have time to join forums or conduct research. Some of them have forked out thousands for industrial hemp oil worth a few dollars. Others send money and never receive any product. It’s risky, and financially draining, at a time when people least need this kind of stress. Legislation would undermine the criminals.

There’s plenty of information available about how to make your own cannabis oil. It’s not difficult, but it is dangerous as it involves using highly flammable solvents. People have been seriously injured when a spark ignites the whole lot and a fireball engulfs them. Legislation would allow for safe manufacture.

People will continue to buy cannabis oil, or make it, and use it, in spite of it being illegal. It surprises me that people in positions of power have so little empathy. If they had terminal cancer, or someone they loved had terminal cancer, and they knew cannabis would ease their pain more effectively than prescription drugs wouldn’t they break the law to get some? How about this question; if you or someone you loved was diagnosed with cancer and you formed the opinion, based on your research, that cannabis oil might actually cure that cancer would you use it?

This debate is less about whether or not sick people will use cannabis and more about the conditions under which they will use it.

At present, people choosing to use cannabis have the additional stress of worrying about where they will obtain a regular supply and what will happen if they are arrested. At a time when these families already have so much to be anxious about, making cannabis legally available to them would be an act of compassion.

There’s a flip side to the current legislation. Many people who would benefit from cannabis are not even prepared to try it while it remains illegal. In some cases this means giving up chemotherapy early because of nausea. In others it means enduring unnecessary pain and distress. If cannabis is conclusively proven to cure some cancers then there are people dying right now that might have been saved.

As an additional supporting argument I offer the observation that many of the cannabis forums include stories of police officers acting compassionately when they detect cannabis possession by seriously ill people. These officers find themselves in a position where they judge the law to be bad law, and choose not to enforce it. They place themselves at professional risk by doing so.

There are those that argue that cannabis has serious side effects for some people. Psychosis is the most often cited. Morphine causes acute paranoia in some people and it’s also highly addictive. We don’t ban it. We make sure it’s only available on prescription and that its use is monitored by medical professionals. Why not do the same for cannabis.

There are also those that argue that legalising cannabis will be ‘the thin edge of the wedge’. They worry that legalising cannabis for medical use will somehow naturally lead to legalisation for recreational use. Just about the only thing that has ever been the thin edge of a wedge is the actual edge of an actual wedge. This argument is a fallacy. Things don’t just somehow magically get incorporated into legislation. It needs to go through parliament. That’s why we make our laws that way.

I’d add that in Colorado the first measurable impact of their broad legalisation of cannabis has been a significant drop in youth suicide. It’s early days and I’m watching that state with interest. They might just change my mind about recreational legislation.

There are those that worry about the lung cancer risk associated with smoking cannabis. It’s fair to say that smoking anything is bad for you. That’s why people using medical cannabis usually use a vaporiser or ingest the oil. There’s no need to smoke it. And, of course, if you’re terminally ill you’re probably not too worried about the long term side effects of anything.

I hope my arguments have given you a basis on which you can lend your support to the availability of medical cannabis. I know that a large part of the obstacle to this legislation is public perception. Politicians are concerned over being seen to ‘go soft’ on illegal drugs. In this regard, I think pointing out that we don’t deny morphine to terminally ill people just because some people abuse morphine is, perhaps, the best response.

It is my fervent hope that we see a change in legislation and that it will open the way for much needed research into the potential benefits of this plant. It may well hold the cure for many cancers and is already being used overseas to treat children with epilepsy and Dravetts syndrome. It is unlikely that there is sufficient time for any of this research to be of direct benefit to me but cancer is hereditary and I have a daughter.

PS: Alcohol is a group one carcinogen, proven to cause a whole raft of cancers. That’s not a reason to legalise cannabis. It’s just hypocritical to have alcohol so freely available when it’s of no possible benefit to anyone while cannabis remains illegal.

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The Continuing Hunt For a Peripheral Neuropathy Treatment

Peripheral Neuropathy caused by chemotherapy continues to bother me.

This condition is caused by nerve damage at the periphery of your body, so hands and feet, and causes sensations of numbness, mild pain and pins and needles (grade 1), moderate pain and some loss of function (grade 2) and can progress to sever pain and disability. It’s a side effect of some types of chemotherapy.

If you’re a regular follower of my blog you’ll recall that I had fibromyalgia before I was diagnosed with cancer. This condition also causes pins and needles in the hands and feet as well as pain throughout the body. The challenge for my doctors has been sorting out which of my symptoms are related to the fibromyalgia and which are related to the chemotherapy.

I developed grade 1 peripheral neuropathy towards the end of my chemotherapy and my doctor reduced the dose for my last two treatments of paclitaxel. Since finishing chemotherapy my peripheral neuropathy has worsened and it’s probably now grade 2, although my stubbornness and refusal to acknowledge it means that I’m still functioning fairly normally.

I tend to drop things because of the lack of feeling in my fingers and I need to be very, very careful with knives. I’m not complaining. A bit of pain in my hands and feet sure beats being dead! Still, I’m on a mission to find a cure, or at least to do everything I can to alleviate the symptoms.

It’s a useful post-surgical project. Computer based activities qualify as ‘taking it easy’. Apparently I’m supposed to be doing more of that.

My preliminary research, which I wrote about on the 26th of January, suggested that acetyl l carnitine might help. Having tried it for a week my symptoms became worse. The trouble is that there’s also research to suggest that regrowing damaged nerves in your hands and feet may include some short term pain to trying to decide if this supplement is working or not is problematic. Because I’m so close to my radiation therapy I’ve decided not to keep taking it. I want to make sure I’m not doing anything that might work against the radiation treatment and until I talk to my radiation oncologist, supplements are out.

Still, the research continues. In addition to what I found last time there’s a growing list of things that MIGHT help with peripheral neuropathy. The difficulty seems to be an absence of double blind trials into what works and what doesn’t. If you’re not currently undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, and your not in the lead up to surgery (because some supplements, like fish oil and ginkgo, thin your blood) then you might want to talk to you doctor about trying one of these:

Ginko Biloba

Magnesium

Zinc

Omega 3

B12

B6 (note that too much can CAUSE peripheral neuropathy)

Glutamate

Acetly l carnitine

All of these substances have some research behind them but none have a double blind human trial of sufficient size to declare any of them a cure. One of the complications with research is that peripheral neuropathy is caused  by a number of diseases, including diabetes and HIV, and what works for either of these may or may not work for chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy. For more information on any of the above substances, just google it with the words ‘peripheral neuropathy study’ after it.

I’d always much rather include food that’s a source of something beneficial than take a supplement. Time and again researchers find that there are things within micro nutrient rich foods that help us to utilise them. Recently New Scientist reported that the vitamin D our bodies manufacture as a result of sun exposure was better utilised than vitamin D in a pill.

At the risk of using a word so overused by management boffins that it’s almost become meaningless, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) work synergistically with other substances in the foods where they naturally occur.

I remember there used to be a company that sold vitamin pill whose advertising always included the phrase “vitamin supplements may be useful when dietary intake is inadequate”. What a wonderful advertisement for eating well. Recently one of my doctors commented that Australians have the most expensive urine in the world. We swallow more supplements than any other population and most of it goes straight through us.

There’s a word you’ll usually see on the label of any bottle of supplements; ‘may’. As in, ‘may reduce the risk of macular degeneration’;’may promote heart function and prevent memory loss’;’may assist in peripheral circulation’ and so on.

Here’s my tip for reading anything that includes this word. Whenever you see it, add the phrase ‘or may not’.

‘May or may not assist in peripheral circulation.’

You can see the difference.

Eating well, on the other hand, is going to have all kinds of benefits for your body beyond the dubious benefits of a pill. Any time you think a supplement might be a good idea, just google the active ingredient and the words ‘food sources of’.

As an example, food sources of magnesium include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, avocado and dark chocolate. Foods high in zinc include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, avocado and dark chocolate. Oysters are your highest source of zinc. Yum. Foods high in omega 3 include fresh soy beans, walnuts, flax seeds and grass fed meat. (Yes, oil fish are in there too but I prefer not to eat them).

It’s not at all surprising to me that the same foods turn up, over and over again, as sources of micronutrients. It’s not difficult to get all of the vitamins and minerals you need if you eat well. If you’re going to absorb them well, you also need good gut health which is why I have probiotic drinking yoghurt every day. Once again, a food rather than a supplement.

There are times when supplements are useful. I did take vitamin D during chemotherapy because I wasn’t allowed in the sun. I have taken digestive enzymes in the past to alleviate reflux and heart burn. If your digestive system has been knocked about these are very useful for stabilising it.

There’s no food that contains Ginko Biloba because it’s a tree, which is why I plan on taking the supplement. I actually have a ginkgo tree in my garden but it seems it’s not safe to just eat the leaves because the quantity of the active ingredient/s seems to be highly variable.

Where I can’t fix something with healthy eating I’ll always consider a supplement, but I’ll also look at my diet first. It’s always going to better for me to eat more fruit and vegetables or add in some walnuts than to swallow a pill. It’s a lot cheaper too.

The other interesting bit of research I’ve found about peripheral neuropathy is about cannabis. This plant keeps turning up as a potential treatment for everything from multiple sclerosis to epilepsy. It’s been shown in vitro to kill triple negative breast cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone and yes, I know that doing something in a petri dish is only a good start for further research, but it’s still a good start.

Here’s the link to the article I found about cannabis and peripheral neuropathy.

http://americannewsreport.com/nationalpainreport/vaporized-cannabis-reduces-neuropathy-pain-8818611.html

Here’s the abstract for the actual research, for those of you that prefer the source material to someone’s interpretation of it:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18403272

You can’t legally grow, sell, use or even give away cannabis in Australia so the benefits for me will remain hypothetical. It’s certainly more evidence that, in my opinion, we need to look at our laws in relation to medical cannabis if only to allow for double blind trials to determine its benefits. This plant MAY cure cancer (did you see what I did there?). 

If you live in a jurisdiction where you can legally use cannabis and you know of anyone successfully using it to treat peripheral neuropathy then please let me know. If you’ve used it illegally to do the same thing then you might want to consider posting under a fake name. I don’t think local police forces are particularly interested in arresting cancer patients but it’s always wise to be careful.

I know some people are shocked by my change in attitude to cannabis. After all, I used to be a police officer. It certainly took a lot more to convince me that a few Facebook memes. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the claims that cannabis cures a range of illnesses and helps with the management of others. In places where it’s used legally the results are compelling, particularly in relation to severe childhood epilepsy and pain management.

In New South Wales the government recently rejected calls for limited legalisation for people with HIV and terminal illnesses. Part of the justification was the fear that any legalisation would result in more cannabis being available and increased recreational drug abuse. How narrow minded. There is clear evidence that many people with serious illnesses are simply choosing to act illegally. Certainly, if faced with a situation where nothing else was working and a family member was dying, wouldn’t you try cannabis? If your child was having up to 100 seizures a day and you could see evidence of it helping children in other countries with the same condition, wouldn’t you be trying it?

Our government foolishly think that keeping cannabis illegal will limit recreational use of the drug. They have completely missed the elephant in the room; those whose only hope is cannabis are already using it. Current laws are not about whether or not seriously ill people will use cannabis, but the conditions under which they will use it.

I believe sick people should be able to try cannabis, discuss its use openly with their doctors, participate in research trials and grow or buy their own plants. We don’t ban steroids or pain medications because they are abused.

In the mean time, there are also a lot of people that won’t even consider trying cannabis because it is illegal, but they’re likely to be people that never had any intention of using it recreationally. They’re likely to be very sick people that don’t need the added stress of breaking the law and fearing arrest added to their already heavy burden.

And the recreational users? I’m guessing they already use it, and that there’s not a significant group of people waiting for the law to change so they can get high.

Regardless of your personal views on cannabis use, I hope you consider supporting its availability to seriously ill people, or at least consider supporting more clinical research into its benefits for seriously ill people. Given the results so far, I’ve decided that, in spite of my policing background, failing to extend this level of support is inhumane.

The other treatment that seems to relieve some people’s peripheral neuropathy is acupuncture. It’s also on my ‘worth trying’ list but just now I’m taking a break from having anything stuck into me. Chemotherapy involves a lot of needles. So do biopsies, clip insertions and surgery. Enough. I’d like to keep my outer surface intact for just a while, but I will consider acupuncture if the ginkgo doesn’t work.

I’m also going to keep up with all of the other practical things that assist in the management of peripheral neuropathy. Daily yoga, walking, a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol and epsom salt baths all help. If you have this condition then I’d highly recommend an accuball or something like it. Here’s the link:

http://www.acuball.com

These are great for helping to relieve pain and stimulate circulation. My daughter bought mine for me as a Christmas gift from Rebel Sport. I have the mini one, and it’s great because I can keep in my handbag and use it anywhere. I’ve also got a couple of ‘dryer balls’ which are meant to fluff up your towels. They’re a larger plastic ball with spikes all over it. Also great for giving myself hand and feet massages and they’re a lot cheaper than the accuball. Here’s a link to some on Amazon, but look around your local $2 shops and supermarkets first. We picked ours up for $2 from a stand selling gardening equipment in the local shopping centre.

http://www.amazon.com/Ontel-Dryer-Balls/dp/B004W7GNB2

Well, that’s about it for peripheral neuropathy so far. It’s certainly worthy of further medical research. I’ve found a number of posts on discussion boards from people that have been told by their doctors to just put up with it. It’s just not an option for me. Just about everything can be improved with good management. It’s also possible that time alone will heal it.

In the mean time I’m also going to eat more chocolate. That stuff’s good for you!

 

POST SCRIPT: Since writing this post I’ve had a double mastectomy and part of the treatment included a drug called ‘gabapentin’ to relieve associated nerve pain. As an unexpected side benefit it treated my peripheral neuropathy. I can taste food again. I am not waking up with my hands feeling like they’ve been slammed in a door. This is no small thing. My surgeon is excited because nobody has made this connection before. No telling it this works for other people or just for some, but it seems logical that something used to treat nerve pain would also work for a nerve related condition. If you have PN then it’s worth talking to your doctor about this drug.

I also read that evening primrose oil was used to treat peripheral neuropathy in people with diabetes. I tried it. It did seem to help. Unfortunately it increased the frequency and severity of my hot flushes. The trade off wasn’t worth it for me but you might still want to try it.