Forces of necessity: The role of lay knowledge and advocacy in the re-medicalization of cannabis, 1973-2004

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Suzanne Taylor, Research Fellow at the Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and is based off of her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, held at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on April 19-20, 2018. In it, she explores the role of lay knowledge and social activism in transforming cannabis into a legitimate medical substance from the 1970s to today. 

The problem:

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Alfie Dingley, the face of medical cannabis in the UK

In March 2018, the case of Alfie Dingley, a six year old boy with epilepsy, hit the headlines as his mother campaigned for access to cannabis oil to help alleviate his seizures. [1] But what was the background to activism for access to cannabis on medical grounds? When cannabis-based medicine was withdrawn in the UK in 1973 it appeared that cannabis’s career as a medicine had ended, but, even as cannabis became regulated solely as an illicit drug, it was being re-medicalized.  Within ten years of cannabis tinctures’ removal, synthetic cannabis-based drugs entered the clinic. However, these drugs caused serious side effects, were expensive and difficult to access, and so were little used. In the UK in the late 1990s the development of a cannabis-based drug using extracts from cannabis appeared to offer a potential way forward, and in 2006 the Home Office licensed GW Pharmaceuticals’ drug, Sativex, on a named-patient basis but it has not been widely available.  In 2015 the report Regulating Cannabis for Medical Use in the UK claimed that British patients were “suffering unnecessarily” and argued for the rescheduling of cannabis to enable its prescription and facilitate research.[2]

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Dr. Suzanne Taylor presents her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, April 20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

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