Medicinal cannabis has totally transformed a former Big Issue seller’s life

As the UK heads towards major cannabis policy reform, we hear from a former vendor who relies on the drug to hold a "coherent conversation"

The British government will officially review the legal use of medicinal cannabis, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced, following the heated political debate surrounding the confiscation of medicinal cannabis oil from 12-year-old Billy Caldwell’s mother at Heathrow airport earlier this month—cannabis oil necessary to treat Billy’s epilepsy.

The review could lead to patients being prescribed drugs made from the plant. While Javid stressed the drug would remain banned for recreational use, he admitted the current situation is “not satisfactory”. Speaking to the House of Commons, he said the case of Billy Caldwell and subsequently that of six-year-old Alfie Dingley had sparked the review.

After an impassioned fight from Caldwell’s mother Charlotte, Billy was granted a 20-day licence for the drug last week when doctors made clear it was a medical emergency. Charlotte’s plea was just the latest in a long fight for treatment for Billy that saw his six-month supply of the oil seized by UK Customs officials upon the pair’s arrival at Heathrow airport. He was taken by ambulance to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital just four days later, with the return of his “life-threatening” seizures. Charlotte welcomed the “positive” announcement but added “we still want to hear the details”.

The review, held in two parts, would first make recommendations on which cannabis-based medicines might offer real medical and therapeutic benefits to patients, with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs also considering changes to the classification of these products after assessing “the balance of harms and public health needs”.

Professor Stevens, a member of the advisory council, said families were suffering “due to the government’s refusal to allow the use of medicines derived from cannabis.” Stevens said the government was worried the reforms could “be used as a wedge to drive through wider reforms on cannabis.

Former Canterbury-based Big Issue vendor Rocky van de Benderskum has also had his own experience of the fight for medicinal use. He said that despite global innovations in medicinal cannabis use “our government is spewing out its tired old rhetoric [that] cannabis has no medicinal value.”

I am in pain every day

Now a qualified teacher, Rocky is recovering from leukaemia which he said has left him with a horde of ailments, some as a result of harsh chemotherapy. “I am in pain every day,” Rocky wrote in an email to The Big Issue, “the only two effective pain killers are morphine, which I have refused, or cannabis which is of course illegal.”

He instead opts for cannabis which he says allows him to “hold a coherent conversation” rather than “become a drooling mess on morphine”. Rocky is a member of the United Patients Alliance, which campaigns for access to medical cannabis to treat chronic conditions, but this wasn’t the 60-year-old’s first foray into the world of cannabis campaigning. He was a Big Issue vendor on Canterbury High Street from 1995 until 1999, and stood for MP for Canterbury and Whitstable in the 2005 General Election as the candidate for the Legalise Cannabis Alliance.

‘Hypocrisy’

The announcement of the review comes as an investigation by the Beckley Foundation – a global drug policy reform think-tank – found that the UK’s existing cannabis industry makes it one of the largest medicinal cannabis cultivators in the world.

The research, obtained via Freedom of Information requests and shared exclusively with Vice, found that British pharma companies were granted 240 cannabis cultivation licenses over the last eight years. Critics are quickly pointing out the hypocrisy between the government’s official line and the real-life extent of Britain’s contribution to the medicinal cannabis industry.

Image: Flickr/Jurassic Blueberries