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I’m risking my career to end my daily agony

High flying lawyer Andy struggled for years to hide his daily battle with chronic pain from his clients. Then he broke the law, self-medicating with street cannabis and everything changed, as he explains here.

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Pain is part of my everyday life. I say pain, as that’s what my condition is, apparently, ‘chronic pain’. But in reality, it’s agony.

Every minute of every day is spent wishing I could do even the most basic of tasks – getting in and out of a chair, walking up the stairs, even going to the toilet – without it making every sinew in my body object to my attempts at movement.

You probably think from reading this, ‘well that’s what happens to old people’. That may be so, and had I been 50 years older than I am, then I would probably accept that this is my lot.

But I am 32. Supposedly in the prime of my life, but even getting out of bed in the morning is the first massive challenge of the day. And the downward spiral begins there. Brushing my teeth, getting dressed, getting in the car – to be truthful, sometimes by the time I get to work, I’m pretty weary already.

My career in professional services is very busy and usually pretty stressful. It involves seeing clients during a packed day of meetings, advising them on what can often be life-changing matters and poring over the finer details of paperwork often until most people have gone to bed.

As a young professional, this is what I’ve always wanted. But against a backdrop of non-stop pain, it feels like I’m fighting a battle all day every day, just to do my job. 

I’ve had this pain since my mid-20s. At first it was just a bit of aching here and there, which for someone with a very desk-based job isn’t uncommon, I suppose.

I tried doing more exercise, but that made things much worse. After a few days had passed and the aching hadn’t worn off, I started to think something wasn’t right. Someone young, in good health, shouldn’t be in this much pain having done nothing more than their daily routine.

A couple of weeks later, I visited my doctor. Seven years or so later, I’ve come to know my doctor rather well.

I tried painkillers, relaxation techniques, hypnotherapy, you name it. Nothing seemed to work. Backwards and forwards I went to the doctor over the years, hoping one of the varieties of medication would make some difference.

It was while researching pain relief during an online search that I stumbled across cannabis. I discovered that since November 2018, it had been legal for medicinal purposes, which initially made me think there was some light at the end of the tunnel, although I did question why my doctor had never volunteered this information. I’d certainly been a few times since it was legalised.

I made an appointment in light of my new discovery of medicinal cannabis and discussed my findings with my doctor. I’ll never forget her reaction.

Once the stunned look had subsided, she said ‘I don’t think we need to go down that route’ and turned away as she wrote out a prescription for yet more pills (I’d had so many bloody pills over the years, I imagine I’m immune to them by now).

Thoroughly disillusioned by my experience, and actually quite troubled as to why I had been refused something that is a legal medicine, I decided to take the law into my own hands. I am being denied something perfectly legal, so I’m going to find my own means of getting it. 

Perhaps this was not the best course of action, and I appreciated this from the outset. When you’ve lived for so long in so much pain and you come so close to finding something that could help, however, you don’t let ‘no’ get in your way.

‘Black market’ cannabis is of course illegal but in my mind I was within my moral rights as I was being denied it in a more acceptable way.

Being given cannabis in a suspicious-looking little bag by a local teenager who you’ve come across smoking weed outside of the local off licence isn’t exactly what I’d imagined ever doing, but for me, it’s a case of needs must. 

The first time I smoked some, I felt really disappointed. The effect was not instant, and I lay there, illegal cigarette in hand, thinking the police were about to show up at my door. I’d lose my career, my reputation, everything I’d worked for, all for nothing. I went to sleep that night pretty gutted.

The next morning, however, I noticed a change. I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom and I could move. I got dressed without feeling like a 95-year-old struggling on without their carer.

This was amazing. Unbelievable, in fact. I wasn’t quite sure whether to relate the cannabis from the previous night with how I felt that morning, but that was the only change to my routine. Nothing else could explain it.

The pain did come back throughout the day, but I smoked some more that night and the effect the next morning was the same. To me, this seemed like a miracle. An illegal one, perhaps, but nevertheless, this was what I had waited years for.

Now, smoking cannabis is a regular thing for me. I continue to get it from my unlikely friend from outside the off licence, and while I’m conscious and aware of the risks of using such cannabis, as long as it works, I’m not going to question it further.

For me, it’s a shame that I have been forced to have this as my dirty little secret. I have kept my chronic pain secret from colleagues and clients for years, even though I realise there’s no shame in it, but this one about my drug use is something they would really take exception to.

I’m good at what I do and I do a great job for my clients, and I don’t want anything to taint that. Being prescribed cannabis would be the way forward for me, as then there’s nothing grubby about it, but until opinions change that isn’t going to happen.

Even my own doctor, who has come to know me and my situation, rejected the very suggestion of me trying cannabis.

How can that be right? Smoking cannabis in my flat, hoping the neighbours don’t smell it or suspect, is of course a concern, but thankfully they’re all busy professionals like myself, so I’m sure they’ve got more pressing things to worry about.

Cannabis has, in all honesty, changed my life. It’s changed my outlook on life too. To be able to get up in the morning and think ‘I might be able to get through a decent chunk of the day without excruciating pain’ is a motivation in itself.

The best suits have come back out of the wardrobe. The appalling chat-up lines have resurfaced for when I’m out on the town. I am the person I want to be, rather than the one who lives only for the office and the home office, struggling to get between both.

I look forward to the day when being prescribed cannabis becomes a genuine option for people with chronic conditions like mine.

Until then, I only hope I manage to continue to buy and use it under the radar, as the consequences would be pretty dire, which I think is deeply unfair.

Andy is 32-year-old lawyer working in England. His name has been changed to protect his identity.

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Fibromyalgia diaries: Travelling as a medical cannabis patient

Medical cannabis patient, Julia Davenport, on the challenges of travelling with a prescription.

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South Africa remains one of fibromyalgia patient Julia Davenport's favourite places - but getting there isn't always easy.

While cannabis oil has dramatically improved fibromyalgia patient Julia Davenport’s quality of life, it has brought with it new challenges when it comes to travel, as she explains here.

Chronic pain has a nasty habit of getting in the way of doing the things you love.

My big passion which I share with my husband, and I guess our one extravagance, is jetting off to far flung places.

Over the years, however, fibromyalgia, arthritis and aching joints have conspired to make travelling evermore arduous.

Now in my 70s with various replacement parts, difficult terrain is one of the biggest barriers to exploring new places.

Certainly, my husband’s bucket list destination, the Galapagos Islands, is on my no-fly list. I would have adored to go there at some point, but navigating those volcanic rocks, even with my walking stick, would be a nightmare.

Fibromyalgia: A banner advert for the medical cannabis clinic

Familiar holiday spots closer to home are also becoming increasingly inaccessible. Every year our extended family visits the same Northumberland cottage, which is at the bottom of a steep bank.

In years gone by, I’d be fine to walk down to it through the working farm in which it stands. Now, because my back and shoulders have deteriorated, I have to drive right to the door.

Finding ways to compensate for the things you can no longer do is a constant theme with chronic pain conditions.

Aside from mobility challenges, another restriction on travel with rheumatological conditions can be the weather, and humidity can play havoc with chronic pain. I’d love to go to Central America, for example, but I just couldn’t tolerate the heat and humidity.

Having said that, although hot dry weather is far better than the cold British winter, the difference is not enough to drag me away from my family at Christmas time.

For all my gripes about life on the road, though, traveling remains my great joy, and discovering medical cannabis and CBD has definitely helped; although it’s not all plain sailing.

Travelling with medical cannabis

In November I’m returning to South Africa, a place I’ve visited a few times and which has a special place in my heart.

On previous visits, because we’ve flown via Dubai, I’ve not taken medical cannabis or CBD with me.

There is no way I’d risk taking cannabis with me to the UAE, where people have apparently been arrested and put in jail for having codeine, never mind anything else, despite having a prescription for it.

They have a ridiculously long list of substances that they deem addictive which you can’t have. There are things you can apply for permission to take, but I just wouldn’t trust that I wasn’t going to get arrested.

When we’ve flown long-haul through Dubai in the past, I would tend to take enough medication just for the journey. I have even flushed pain medication down the toilet on a connecting flight to Dubai just to make sure I’m not in possession on arrival.

I’ve then managed to pick up cannabis products quite easily in certain final destinations.

In South Africa there was a shop similar to a Holland and Barrett which sold CBD products legally. They were able to match the equivalent of what I was already taking to their products.

In Japan, it was also relatively easy to buy CBD over the counter, even with the language barrier.

In the past, the ease at which you can buy CBD has definitely influenced my travel choices. There are lots of countries that I’d give a wide berth to because of their approach to medication, which is often underpinned by false views on addiction.

At the same time, with so many countries opening up to CBD, travelling is getting easier and the main challenge is the routing of flights through the Gulf.

Thankfully on my next trip to South Africa we are travelling direct to Cape Town directly so I can rest easy that I won’t end up behind bars.

Guidance for travelling with medical cannabis

Some countries allow medicinal cannabis and some even recreational cannabis. Some allow CBD but others do not.

Guidance from the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society recommends that patients always contact the embassy to check the legal situation in the country they are visiting before travelling with medical cannabis.

 Some countries require a letter of proof from a clinician, some require a request to be submitted to the embassy requesting to travel, some restrict the amount of medication you are able to travel with, i.e. up to 30 days supply. It is suggested that any guidance is sought and confirmed in writing.

It is advised that travellers keep medication on their person, stored in its original packaging along with a copy of their issued prescription and relevant corresponding paperwork. 

You can get an idea of the country’s stance on cannabis initially by searching for “legality of cannabis” on Wikipedia – but always check with the embassy as well.

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Fibromyalgia diaries: To vape or not to vape?

Medical cannabis oil has been life-changing for Julia, but she’s still struggling to come to terms with vaping.

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Fibromyalgia diaries: To vape or not to vape?

Fibromyalgia patient Julia Davenport says cannabis oil has been life-changing for her, but she’s still struggling to get on board with flower.

My perception of cannabis has changed dramatically in the few years since I started taking it as pain relief. 

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’m from a generation which, despite living through the enlightened age of the 1960s, grew up believing the plant to be bad. 

This created a strong resistance to even trying CBD or medical cannabis when they emerged as possible treatments for pain associated with my fibromyalgia and arthritis. 

I’m over that now, and take CBD daily, with a private medical cannabis prescription to use orally whenever I have a flare-up. 

Fibromyalgia: A banner advert for the medical cannabis clinic

Read more about how Julia discovered medical cannabis

One taboo I’m still struggling to get past, however, is the use of vape. 

Buried in my kitchen drawer is a dry herb vapouriser, alongside the medical cannabis flower prescribed to me by a pain consultant.

With this, I’m armed and ready with what I understand to be the fastest route for medical cannabis to get into the bloodstream.  

But, sadly, although it could have rescued me on several occasions in the year since I bought the device, its box remains sealed.

I’m sure many Cannabis Health readers will be shaking their heads right now. What a travesty that something millions of people with a range of conditions could potentially benefit from is going to waste. 

I do truly feel lucky to have a private prescription at a time when countless others are unable to access medical cannabis through cost, red tape or misinformation.

The problem I have is my huge aversion to smoking. Yes vaping isn’t smoking, but the action of ingesting something that looks like smoke into your lungs just doesn’t feel right. 

While I’ve never smoked in my life, my father was a heavy smoker who suffered from the lung disease, chronic emphysema. My mother also had coronary artery disease, possibly related to smoking. 

For these reasons, I just have a mental block about vaping, despite reading about how effective it can be as a breakthrough remedy.

No doubt many people my age, who grew up with parents who smoked, also feel the same; and perhaps there is some way to go before vape vendors can escape perceived links to smoking.  

Maybe more evidence on the impact of vaping on the lungs will help to change this over time – and I’ll eventually make use of my vapouriser. 

Meanwhile, in putting my fibromyalgia diary together, I began to think about all the ways cannabis has changed my life. I thought I’d share perhaps the most unusual one – going cold turkey on my teddy bear collection. 

With chronic pain conditions, including fibromyalgia, night time can be particularly difficult and insomnia is common. It is a horrible experience to feel utterly drained but be unable to fall asleep, sometimes for days. 

Before discovering CBD and medical cannabis I would often find myself wide awake in the middle of the night. It was at these times that my attention drifted on my iPad to eBay. 

For some reason, possibly nostalgia, my search for distraction amid the pain and boredom took me to the furry world of vintage teddy bears.

Many nights spent bidding for bears in the blue light led to a considerable collection building up. 

Now, my days as an arctophile (yes there is a word for someone who collects or is very fond of teddy bears) are over.

My CBD and medical cannabis regime has significantly cut the number of sleepless nights I experience and, in turn, the volume of new bears taking up space on my shelves.

Next time: Travelling as a medical cannabis patient.

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“As a psychiatrist I have been amazed by the power of medical cannabis”

Dr Tahzid Ahsan, a consultant psychiatrist on discovering the benefits of cannabis for mental illness.

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“As a psychiatrist I have been amazed by the power of medical cannabis”
"With one cannabis flower I have treated people with depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, PTSD, insomnia and more."

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

For almost 20 years I was shamefully oblivious to the truth, but now I have seen the benefits of medical cannabis in all walks of society, writes Dr Tahzid Ahsan, consultant psychiatrist and prescriber at The Medical Cannabis Clinics. 

Professor David Nutt wrote a recent article for the British Medical Journal, entitled; Why doctors have a moral imperative to prescribe medical cannabis

So when did the moral compass change around cannabis and why?

“As a psychiatrist I have been amazed by the power of medical cannabis”

Dr Tahzid Ahsan

For thousands of years cannabis has helped humankind with discomfort and diseases of the mind, body and spirit, discussed in great detail as a form of medicine in ancient Hindi, Chinese and Arabic manuscripts.  

The current stigma arises from a period of civil rights movement in the 1960s US, leading to a direct ban on all psychoactive substances during the ‘flower power ‘era. 

The US’s number one ally followed suit, with the UK enforcing the 1971 Drugs misuse act as swathes of ethnic minorities were migrating to the UK, leading many to being incarcerated for cannabis use.

In the 1980s I grew up in an inner city area of a major city, where social and economic deprivation were rife. I recall young black and ethnic minority men being incarcerated by the police due to cannabis use, some were even placed into mental health units under the premise of the 1983 Mental Health law, stating that they were psychotic due to cannabis use. 

Despite substantial evidence to suggest that migration and trauma is a factor for someone to develop schizophrenia and psychosis, the abhorrent stigma still remains that cannabis directly causes this.

As a result , rightly or wrongly, the three associations that are currently most attached to cannabis are criminality, race and socioeconomic status, preventing a nascent industry and treatment from getting the exposure that it deserves. 

For almost 20 years I was shamefully oblivious to the truth, the veil of ignorance preventing me from seeking further knowledge around a substance that had helped with mind, body and spirit for thousands of years. 

anxiety: A banner advert for the medical cannabis clinics

As a training day coordinator for my consultant training scheme in 2017, I managed to have an invitation accepted by my ‘hero’ Professor Nutt himself. Witnessed by over 150 psychiatrists, Professor Nutt reflected on the past, present and future of psychiatry, with us.  I recall the grumbling tones of protestation from the crowd when cannabis was mentioned as a potential treatment for many mental health conditions in the future. 

In 2018, the story of young Alfie whose life was transformed by medical cannabis, led to a dramatic change  to the 1971 Drugs Misuse Act, whereby cannabis for medical use was reduced in scheduling meaning it could ‘be prescribed in humans’. This small change in the law has led to a fledgling industry. 

I joined The Medical Cannabis Clinics in November 2020, the first medical cannabis clinic to form in the UK. I then became a registered doctor for Project Twenty21, set up by Professor Nutt’s organisation Drug Science. The project made medical cannabis prescriptions more affordable, as well as gathering important real world evidence for research. 

Over the past two years I can honestly say I have been truly amazed by the power of medical cannabis. 

My shock comes from how medical cannabis can traverse such a huge range of mental illnesses in such a short space of time,  with very little side effects noted. 

Patients love the fluidity and malleability of medical cannabis, they don’t feel it’s dictating their lives like traditional medications have done. Some have even described cannabis as an accompaniment to their lives like a “long lost friend”, helping them cope from moment to moment, providing them with the necessary headspace to recover, grow and learn. 

With one cannabis flower I have treated people with depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, PTSD, insomnia and more.

I have seen the benefits in people from all walks of British society, from the 70-year-old lady in a local village to an 18-year-old male from south London. 

I have heard many stories where people were literally at the end of the tether, having gone through a multitude of medications and therapy, to finally find something that can help them feel ‘normal’ again. They can now live life to the fullest, with a new found confidence in themselves to interact with the world around them in a fruitful manner. When I hear patient’s stories of how they have reconnected with people who they had avoided for many years, it almost brings a tear to my eye. 

In my entire 20 years of being in the medical field, I have never once heard an equally glowing review about a particular psychotropic medication, in comparison to medical cannabis. 

My whole perception of medical recovery has changed. As clinicians we dictate what the patient should have, and at what time. If they don’t conform, we label them as ‘non-compliant’ (bad patients), despite the side-effects causing more issues for some than the condition itself. 

With medical cannabis, patients can choose what strain and how much percentage of THC or CBD they would like, the terpene profiles that suit their goals and needs, adjusted according to how it benefits them. For the first time in their lives patients are enjoying recovering from their mental ailments through the power of medical cannabis. 

Unfortunately most in the UK are completely oblivious to the immense benefits of cannabis as described above, still associating cannabis with criminality, race and socio-economic status. 

Due to certain elements of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2012, we have been left in a position where the UK is one of the biggest exporters, as well as the biggest importers of medical cannabis. Yet UK patients cannot benefit from locally grown medical cannabis, they can only be prescribed cannabis that has been transported across the world. This has created a bottleneck where patients have been left waiting for weeks due to stock issues. 

It’s promising to hear that MPs such as Jeff Smith, who recently motioned the Medical Cannabis Access Bill, are working to try and make quality medical products more easily accessible to patients.

In the west, research and subsequent treatment depends on the gold standard of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). If evidence of treatment has not followed these standard research protocols, the evidence is almost dismissed by clinicians. 

As you can imagine it’s easy to do research on a drug where dosages can be changed very easily in a neat incremental manner. But cannabis does not fit into the neat categories within RCTs. The effect of the flower can change according to the strain, terpene profile and cannabinoid content. It requires a different approach and respect when it comes to evidencing benefits of medical cannabis, with more emphasis on qualitative clinical case studies.

At a time of great division nationally after Brexit and ongoing worldwide geopolitical turmoil, medical cannabis could be a unifying force that allows for more compassion and understanding between all of us. 

Cannabis, like the notion of ‘faith’, knows no boundaries, colour creed, or religion. I feel truly blessed that I have come across a treatment that I believe will shape the western philosophy of medicine for the foreseeable future. 

Dr Tahzid Ahsan, is a consultant psychiatrist and prescriber at The Medical Cannabis Clinics. If you could like to share your story contact [email protected]

 

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