UN reclassification of cannabis achieves little for patients’ rights

12th February 2021

The removal of cannabis and cannabis resin from schedule IV by the UN appears to be a positive move and has been touted to speed up desperately-needed human clinical trials; however, cannabis extracts and tinctures remain in Schedule IV and the UN still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, meaning a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for what is classified as abuse. The UK government still categorises cannabis as a class B drug, with the penalty for possession being up to 5 years in prison and up to 14 years for production and supply.

Speaking as an illegal UK cannabis patient and home-grower, I am (literally) painfully aware that cannabis should not have been criminalised in the first place, that prohibition has caused far more harms than those it professes to prevent, and that prohibition is a breach of fundamental human rights. Every day, I risk arrest and prosecution for keeping my incurable disease with life-threatening complications in remission by using herbal medicine and functional nutrition, because cannabis is one of the many herbs and superfoods I take daily to make my life bearable.

The UN reclassification restricts THC levels at below 0.2%, however THC has been legally prescribed for many years in the UK, and strains containing 20% THC are legally prescribed in cannabis clinics around the UK as well as being illegally grown by patients like myself. The reason I am an illegal patient and not a legal one is economic discrimination. I cannot afford a legal prescription and therefore I am a criminal. Also, home-grown cannabis is often more effective than prescribed, because harm reduction is practised by tailoring strains, employing sustainable and organic growing methods, and raw juicing fresh cannabis, which is a non-psychoactive and effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. In fact raw cannabis is classed as a dietary essential by Dr. William Courtney, who states that '...there needs to be Minimum Daily Requirements established to guide worldwide adoption of raw cannabis as the single most important dietary element.' [1]

The main argument put forward in support of restricting THC levels is that it causes psychosis. Yet, the number of patients in the UK who are being prescribed cannabis medications containing 20% THC is growing daily, without any marked increase in mental health problems. [2] The risk of psychosis from THC comes when a patient has a pre-existing vulnerability to serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which is usually genetic. The incidence of psychosis in the UK is currently 0.7% in adults aged 16 and over, [2] and this figure could be reduced if CBD oil was prescribed on the NHS for early psychosis symptoms such as poor concentration, anxiety and paranoia. Human trials into the relationship between psychosis and CBD oil have been carried out by Kings College, and the results were encouraging and warrant further human trials now. 

The difficulties facing cannabis patients are not made any easier by the UK press, which refuses to print stories on cannabis unless they conform to the governmental line that cannabis is harmful except when grown by a business or prescribed by a doctor. There are now two groups challenging this: 'We The Undersigned' (WTU) and “'Seed Our Future' (SOF). WTU is a group of cannabis patients, founded by Phil Monk, who raised the money to appoint a barrister to make a legal challenge against the government and are now issuing a declaration of incompatibility to the Secretary of State. However, the available funds do not allow us to go all the way to the High Court and without press coverage these challenges are unlikely to be heard by the general public, which in turn hampers fund-raising.

To quote Phil Monk: 'I became incensed...after reading the report by Philip Robson, The Therapeutic Aspects of Cannabinoids, published in 2001, commissioned by the Department of Health in 1996 and received by the government in 1998, that concluded that cannabis is remarkably therapeutic. I learned that they have known the truth for decades, yet oppressed it, then dictated a policy of criminalising peaceful people...and granted the required time to develop marketable and profitable cannabis-based products.' [3]

SOF was inspired by WTU and was founded by Guy Coxall, who produced the October 2020 Campaign Report titled 'Cannabis and the Law: No Evidence, No Crime?' based on research by Trev Coleman, and in collaboration with Steve Harrison, with contributions from Alun Buffry, Phil Monk, Mandy Tusz Victoria Lenormand and Dr Orfhlaith Campbell. [4] The report is a detailed and thorough document giving the history of cannabis and prohibition, showing financial links between government and the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries, and also showing that there is no evidence of cannabis being a dangerous drug with no medical value. It gives examples of breaches of human rights such as the case of the 80-year-old terminal kidney disease patient, Phillip Anthony Bevington, who is currently facing charges in court for growing his own medicine. 

Members of SOF, including myself, sent emails to the entire UK Police Force, Crown Prosecution Service and Home Office asking to see the foundation evidence that cannabis is a dangerous drug with no medical value. None of them could provide the evidence, and the Home Office replied on the 17th of November 2020 saying that they do not hold the evidence requested, and that a number of files relating to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act have been destroyed. The Home Office then replied again on the 7th of December providing links to evidence, however, to quote SOF:  '…The so called ‘scientific and medical evidence’ shows that harms to health are grossly exaggerated, are inconclusive (as stated by the ACMD) and the scheduling and classification within MoDA are based primarily on political basis opposed to scientific findings (House of Commons 2006 report).' [5]

Indeed, the very WHO reviews and recommendations that were used by the UN to cast its vote on reclassifying cannabis are so outdated and inaccurate as to be irrelevant. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as Amended by the 1972 Protocol, which those recommendations were based upon is also out of date and is now, also, irrelevant; countries such as Canada, Uruguay and the 16 legal states in the US which have legalised cannabis have effectively disregarded it. 

In 2018, a Joint Civil Society Contribution was made to the 40th WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), with endorsements from 68 civil society organisations from 29 countries in all continents. This publication (which had to be composed in 4 days due to to the late publishing of the pre and Critical review report documents by the WHO) found procedural, methodological and terminological bias in the WHO recommendations. To quote the Foreword of the Joint Civil Society Contribution: 

'Oversight, plagiarism, gross negligences, terminology issues, mistaken references, erroneous translations, mismatched data aggregated, and in fine bias, is evident in the preparation process of the reviews you are about to undertake. Moreover, some authors of the reports over which you will base your assessment, have omitted or misrelated important pieces of evidence.' 

The Contribution also stated that: 'In light of the bias and errors pointed out in this contribution, three possible pathways forward appear: 

  • end the review process, 
  • continue the process despite ethical concerns, bias and over strong objection, 
  • slowdown to ensure deliberative process, comprehensiveness and thoroughness.' [6]

Sadly, the WHO chose to continue with the flawed review process despite these strong objections.

In conclusion, it appears that the recent reclassification by the UN does more to keep the political status quo of using biased, flawed evidence and grossly exaggerated harms to maintain prohibition, than to advance the fundamental human rights of patients. This will ultimately slow down research and human trials contrary to appearances. And in the meantime, patients will continue to be unjustly persecuted, leaving them little choice but to grow illegally, carrying with it the risk of being charged by the police with unlicensed cultivation of a dangerous drug. 

There is still a chance for truth and justice however, because the SOF report [4] shows a way to challenge those charges, and soon there will be courses available in the UK to teach patients how to use the evidence-based approach to shut down a police bust as it happens, or how to potentially get their case dismissed from court as not being in the public interest. This has been successfully deployed once already in the UK, in Northern Ireland, where a bust in process was shut down. This offers a glimmer of hope to patients like myself, who are forced to risk arrest in order to have a bearable quality of life.

When those in public office are guilty of following unjust laws without evidence, when following the party line is more important than due diligence and the truth, then the contract between the holders of public office and the people they ostensibly represent has been broken. Who then is the criminal, the patient who grows cannabis peacefully and responsibly to treat their disease, thus alleviating strain on the healthcare system, or the police, MPs and public health experts of the WHO and U.N. who breach their public office contract to perpetuate unjust laws? 

Footnote

Phillip Anthony Bevington, the 80 year old terminal kidney disease patient, was handed a 2 year suspended sentence for growing 24 cannabis plants of both CBD and THC in Truro Crown Court. He has now paid for a legal cannabis prescription, however if he becomes unable to afford it, he will face going to prison if he gets caught growing again. 

In the same week, an 84 year old man was also given a 2 year suspended sentence in Hereford Crown Court, but it was for making six of the most serious type of indecent photographs of a child, category A images, which showed a sexual act being committed, and a further 'category B' indecent photograph of a child. [7] Sadly the courts consider growing your own medicine to alleviate suffering comparable with possessing photographs of sexual acts with a minor. 

Author: Sarah Godfrey, patient–researcher

References
  1. Dr William Courtney
  2. Kirkbride JB, Errazuriz A, Croudace TJ, Morgan C, Jackson D, McCrone P, Murray RM & Jones PB, 'Systematic Review of the Incidence and Prevalence of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses in England' Jan 2012
  3. Phil Monk, We The Undersigned
  4. Guy Coxall, Trev Coleman and Steve Harrison, with contributions ’Cannabis and the Law - No Evidence, No Crime?’ October 2020
  5. House of Commons, 2006. Drug Classification: Making A Hash Of It?. London: Science and Technology Committee Available
  6. Michael Krawitz and Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, 40th WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence. Joint Civil Society Contribution: Procedural, methodological and terminological bias, May 2018
  7. The Hereford Times, 8th January 2020