Medical Cannabis: Breaking the Stigma

“Medical cannabis has given me my life back” 

-Louise McConnell

“Medical cannabis has given me my life back” were the cries of Derry/Londonderry grandmother Louise McConnell at Integro’s Medical Cannabis Conference. The conference, held at Belfast’s Crown Plaza Hotel on World Cannabis Day [April 20th], was the first of its’ kind in Northern Ireland. 

Integro Medical Cannabis Clinics are one of the UK’s leading medical cannabis clinics for patient support and product quality. Medical cannabis has been made legal via a prescription in the UK since 2018. Their conference took the form of two panel discussion shows, one surrounding the positive impacts of medical cannabis on pain, the other about the positive impacts of medical cannabis and mental health. 

Yvette Shapiro, spokesperson for the Public Health Authority gave out information on cannabis, saying “Drug and alcohol misuse is sadly an all too common issue and all drugs carry risks. The Public Health Agency strongly recommends that you do not take any drug unless it has been prescribed to you by a medical professional and in accordance with your prescription. Cannabis is one of the most commonly used illegal drugs in Northern Ireland and is usually smoked in the form of resin (hash), a brown solid mass which is crumbled and mixed with tobacco and made into a type of cigarette called a ‘joint’.

Cannabis can combine hallucinogenic and depressant effects. Not everyone has the same effect from taking cannabis, and some novice users feel sick whilst others may feel anxious and guilty. Some people get mild hallucinations. The most common effects are relaxation, talkativeness and a heightened perception of music and colour. One of the main dangers of cannabis is the state of intoxication it creates, eg like being drunk. The person may not be able to perform many usual functions safely, like driving, crossing the road or operating machinery.

Cannabis use may affect short-term memory. As cannabis is frequently smoked with additional tobacco products, heavy use of cannabis over a period of years may cause respiratory diseases like bronchitis and lung cancer. Regular use during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth. Cannabis use has also been associated with poor mental health and its use may increase the risk of developing mental illness in some users. People can become psychologically dependent on cannabis for enjoyment, or may feel like if helps them “cope” with life. Users report symptoms of withdrawal which include decreased appetite, weight loss, lethargy, irritability, mood changes, muscle pain, sweating and insomnia”.

Louise McConnell has suffered since she was born with Spina Bifida and at age 21, was diagnosed with Osteoarthritis. She is now a prescribed medical cannabis patient and has never looked back. “Medical cannabis has given me my life back and given me complete control back of my own healthcare. I was on forty tablets a day, in bed for days at a time, whereas with medical cannabis it gives me just that wee bit more what to live and a wee bit more interest in life. It really has given me back a really good quality of life compared to what I had”. 

Clare Holliday, IPS Pharma’s Head of Medical Cannabis says that medical cannabis can have a positive effect on people’s mental health. “I think we’ve seen, not just through our clinic, through the patients that have come by, a very positive impact. PTSD, anxiety, depression, we see pain patients that have treated for their pain and suddenly their mental health has been managed and is in a much better place because of their cannabis prescription, so it’s absolutely positive”. 

Holliday added that to break the stigma surrounding medical cannabis we need to talk about it more. “I think it just has to be talked about more. Even patients that are medically prescribed are often shy or afraid to tell friends and family because there is so much judgement, but I think when patients are actually prescribed it validates it for them and they feel comfortable in telling friends and family about their prescription. So I think, over time, as the awareness builds and time goes on, the stigma will be extinct”. 

McConnell echoed Holliday’s idea of awareness being the key to breaking the stigma. “I would have probably been fully against it as well, but sometime people are born square pegs in round holes and I was born different to other people, I was born with a disability. You can’t force me into a round hole and I won’t take medication that doesn’t suit me at my age when all I want to do is live my best and healthiest life possible and I believe medical cannabis does that for me”. 

Alex Fraser, Grow Pharma’s Patient Access Lead reinforced Holliday and McConnell’s thoughts that education is the best way forward to break the stigma. “It’s all about awareness. It’s a sad thing to be in the position of working for, essentially a pharmaceutical company and to be having to say basically it’s going to come when more patients talk up about it. That’s not to put pressure on anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable, but those who are loud and proud, this industry needs you, the other patients need you. We need to talk about this, we need it in the papers, on the tv, we need more events like this, with the industry reaching out into the community and just giving the chance for real people to tell their real stories”. 

Pierre van Weperen, CEO of Grow Pharma described the stigma surrounding medical cannabis as “interesting”. “Stigma is an interesting point. The stigma, I think it’s much driven by the fact that there’s this whole culture about drug, drug abuse and cannabis falls into that”. Van Weperen also suggests that better education is needed to spread awareness. “People don’t get educated about it, in university, nobody tells you about cannabis and what is in the cannabinoid system, so it’s totally unknown”. “The problem is, every time people say that, they talk about illegal, black market, street cannabis, which like with any other drug, you have no idea where it comes from, what they’ve done with it, where it has been. They tell you what it is, but it doesn’t show that does it?”. “There are now a plethora of studies that show that medical cannabis is safe”.

The evenings second panel discussed the positive impacts of medical cannabis on mental health. Alan Robinson, known on social media as NICannaGuy, is a cannabis activist with his own dry herb vape lounge in Ballyclare. Alan said that cannabis “always made me feel better, on the inside”. “The voice in my head always seemed to favour cannabis, rather than going and having a drink or going and trying some harder drugs when out at the weekend. Through my pursuit of better quality cannabis, I was able to garnish an interest which then led onto medical cannabis. Having an interest in cannabis and being able to approach cannabis prescribing doctors has been a real game changer for me”. 

“What can I say about the reaction? Belfast is buzzing and that’s an understatement. The entire length of Ireland knows who NICannaGuy is and that is a massive feather in my cap. I always wanted to spread information to the general public because there is information there”. “The town itself is really, really buzzing. We feel like we’ve put Ballyclare on the map”. “It’s very, very humbling, but it does put a big smile on my face”. “What we’re finding is we’re getting a lot of nurses and people from the health sector who are coming into chat to us now”. “The stigma of having a cannabis lounge on the high street seems to be quite accepted here”. 

“I found that medical cannabis patients, like myself, were sitting alone in their house and didn’t have a safe place where they could come and, not only use their medical cannabis prescription and meet other patients who are consuming medical cannabis and talk with them”. “I would like to think the NICannaGuy persona has gave some people a voice where they are unable to speak”. 

Robinson can be contacted on social media @NICannaGuy. Information from Integro can be found on their website, or by phoning 08004647051.