When mum-of-three Lara Smith accidentally set her kitchen on fire while taking heavy opiates for chronic pain, it was a turning point. Here she explains how medical cannabis shaped what happened next.
Rock bottom came one evening, while washing up after dinner.
Lara, a former nurse, who lived with her three children in Newcastle upon Tyne, answered the door to collect an Amazon parcel.
Back in the kitchen she placed the package on the stove, believing she had turned the gas off and returned to the dishes.
Just moments later she smelled the smoke and turned to see three-foot flames leaping from the cooker.
“It all happened in a split second – it was scary how quick it was,” she remembers.
“The minute I saw the flames I told my daughter to get the others out and I grabbed the washing up bowl and threw it on top.
“There was soot everywhere. I thought I’d turned the gas off, but I must have turned it the other way. That was the turning point,” Lara continues.
“I was in floods of tears and I ripped the fentanyl [an opioid] patch off. I had had enough.
“I thought, what has my life come to? I can’t cope like this. I don’t care what I have to do, I need to just manage my life differently.”
The mum-of-three, 47, suffers from advanced spondylosis with symptoms of myelopathy – a type of arthritis of the spine, often described as a slow-motion spinal cord injury, which causes the discs and joints to degenerate.
In her teens she was at the top of her game as a junior British champion fencer.
But since she first prolapsed a disc at the age of 17, the condition has left her battling years of chronic pain and mobility issues.
After her sporting career was sadly short-lived, Lara went onto become a paediatric nurse before her condition left her too ill to work.
Since 2007, she has dealt with daily debilitating pain, which she describes as electric shocks – caused by the degeneration of the spine – running down her back, through each limb and into her toesc
The shocks, which occur at the movement of her head, would not only leave her crippled in pain but often unable to move.
Over the years doctors tried over 35 different medications to manage her pain, progressing from anti-inflammatories – which destroyed the lining of her stomach – to heavy opiates including tramadol (which gave her an irregular heartbeat), buprenorphine, fentanyl and ketamine.
“It was not a nice place to be, drugged up all the time,” she says.
“They took away my capacity to operate. My day was about 12 hours long and I had to give up driving and rely on favours from friends and family to get my children to school.”
Despite the horrendous withdrawal symptoms she suffered from suddenly coming off the drugs, Lara went back to her doctor and pleaded for other options.
She tried steroid injections which left her angry and aggressive and even nabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid, which gave her severe headaches and low blood pressure.
Having tried cannabis illegally, once while recovering from an injury in her early 20s, Lara was already aware of its effectiveness for pain management.
And after exhausting all other options she was eventually prescribed Becrocan privately.
Since 2014 she has been making the journey to The Netherlands to collect the medication – at a cost of around £750 a month – declaring it to customs on return.
“The effects have been really positive, but the main thing is that I’ve been able to come off all the other drugs,” she says.
“It really dampens down the electric shocks – the difference is like somebody is lightly touching a pin to the outside of my foot, rather than stabbing me with a needle.
“I still have to pace myself but I can do more, I can drive again in an adapted car and I have got my memory back.”
Being able to come off opiates has given Lara her sense of self back and, she believes, has even made her a better mother to her children, now aged 17, 15 and 13.
“My daughter was 12 when I came off the drugs and one of the first things she said was ‘I feel like I’ve got my mum back’.” It must have been horrible for her – she said there was a coldness when she would speak to me.
“The drugs make you numb, not only do they block out the pain but all your other emotions too.”
Lara has now become a prominent campaigner, advocating for drug reform and wider NHS access.
She is a member of drug reform policy group CLEAR and in 2015 gave evidence at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform.
She has spoken out about the need for wider access to medical cannabis on The One Show, The Victoria Derbyshire show and most recently BBC 5Live.
“I’m contacted by people all the time and it’s heartbreaking to have to tell them there is no NHS access,” she says.
“I’m not comfortable with the fact that they have created a two-tier system; the haves and have-nots.
“My belief is that patients should be able to access the medicines that they need, on the NHS and not have to resort to a drug dealer or growing their own.”
Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) state that other than cannabidiol used on its own in the context of a clinical trial, no cannabis-based medicinal products should be used for treating chronic pain.
Lara continues to fight to bring an end to the stigma associated with medical cannabis.
She adds: “People talk about cannabis getting you high, but they have no idea the impact that strong opiates like fentanyl have.
“Cannabis doesn’t get me high, it just allows me to be comfortable.”
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