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Jeff Ditchfield: “The only thing I see as wrong, is denying someone medicine they need”

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Jeff Ditchfield cannabis
Jeff Dtichfield helped thousands of seriously ill people gain access to medical cannabis

Renowned medical cannabis activist, Jeff Ditchfield opens up about his 20-year stint in the medical cannabis space – from growing cannabis for a friend with MS, to launching Bud Buddies, an organisation that provides medical cannabis to the seriously ill. 

As one of the early proponents of medical cannabis in the early 2000s, Jeff Ditchfield founded Bud Buddies, an organisation that helped thousands of patients access medical cannabis.

Twenty years and several arrests later, he has turned his attention to Jamaica, a country with a rich history of cannabis use and cultivation.

Speaking via Zoom from a bar on the coast, Jeff offered Cannabis Health a glimpse into his two-decade fight against cannabis prohibition and explains what drove him to risk 14 years in prison to help people access the plant.

A friend in need

Prior to starting out on his journey into the world of medical cannabis, Jeff had only encountered the drug a handful of times. Like many people, he dabbled with weed in his teenage years, smoking a joint in his hometown of Chester in 1976. According to Jeff, it contained “the worst form of hash you could get”.

“I think I smoked about half a joint and that was my experience [with cannabis] until the year 2000,” he said.

Twenty-five years after his first encounter with the plant, Jeff was visiting a friend who suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS) and was self-medicating with cannabis to manage her symptoms.

“I knew she consumed cannabis to help with her MS, but I had never really given it much thought until I met her,” Jeff said.

“I hadn’t seen her for a few months and she looked terrible.”

He was shocked to hear that his friend, who he describes as a “vulnerable person in a wheelchair”, had recently been robbed at knifepoint after going out at night in Liverpool in an attempt to source cannabis.

Having just sold his successful transport business and at a loose end, Jeff saw an opportunity to help her access this ‘medicine’.

“Here was a friend of mine, someone who is vulnerable, going up and down the Dock Road in Liverpool, going up to strangers in pubs asking if she can buy some weed because her regular dealer who used to get her medicine had been locked up,” Jeff said.

“I thought, ‘it’s a plant; it can’t be that hard to grow’ so I started growing it to help her out.”

His friend happened to be the chairperson of her local MS society. She told her friends, who also used cannabis to ease their symptoms, about her new supply and soon Jeff was receiving enquiries from other MS sufferers who were struggling to source good strains of cannabis.

Word travelled fast and he found himself being contacted by people with an array of health conditions, not just MS. He couldn’t keep up with the demand, but was determined to help as many people as he could.

“I was trying to think of a way whereby people could be supplied with the medicine they required without the trouble and hassle from the law, or indeed from criminals and the dangers caused by prohibition,” Jeff said.

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“I realised that there was not a lot I could do on my own.”

The cannabis cafe

Inspired by the UK’s first cannabis cafe, The Dutch Experience in Stockport, Jeff opened Beggars Belief, a cafe and members-only cannabis club in Rhyl, North Wales, which ran from 2003 to 2007.

While The Dutch Experience was fully open about its selling of cannabis, emulating the coffee shops found across the Netherlands, Beggars Belief took a more cautious approach to protect its team and the people it helped.

The cafe consisted of two adjoining properties; one housed the Beggars Belief cafe which any member of the general public could walk into, and the other was a members-only area where people could go to access cannabis or learn about how to grow their own plants.

Jeff Ditchfield Beggars Belief

Jeff Ditchfield with Howard Marks outside the Beggars Belief cannabis cafe in Rhyl

The private nature of the members-only area gave Jeff and his team a level of protection from law enforcement, however he was by no means unfamiliar with the local police officers.

“When they came into the public area of the Beggars Belief, there was nothing illegal going on,” Jeff said.

“There was a sign saying ‘members-only after this door’, implying what goes on without actually admitting to what goes on.

“We had police officers coming in, great community officers. In fact, we used to invite them in and offer them a free coffee. They’d always ask ‘what’s going on in the in the members’ area?’”

Jeff would give little away, but says he would “bait” them, inviting officers to become members if they wanted to find out about the club’s inner workings.

“They got the message that to go into the Beggars Belief members area, they needed a warrant,” he said.

“To get a warrant they needed evidence and me being just a little bit sarcastic wasn’t enough.”

It was here that he launched and ran Bud Buddies, a renowned non-profit organisation that has “grown organically” from supplying cannabis for his friend with MS to helping thousands of people gain access to medical-grade cannabis.

With little interest in making money from his work, Jeff supplies all his cannabis-based products free of charge.

“If someone comes to us with questions, we’re not trying to sell to them or give them anything necessarily, what we’re trying to do is guide them,” he explained.

Bud Buddies supplied cannabis to people suffering from a range of serious conditions including MS, epilepsy and cancer.

“I couldn’t plead guilty to an immoral law”

In 2004, Jeff was arrested for cannabis possession at Beggars Belief.

He pleaded not guilty at magistrates’ court before being tried at Chester Crown Court for possession, cultivation and intent to supply. He was facing 14 years in prison.

“I wasn’t going to plead guilty, I could not plead guilty to an immoral law. For me to plead guilty would be to admit that I was wrong and I couldn’t do that,” he said.

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“The only thing I see being wrong is when we deny a person medicine that they need.”

To avoid criminal charges, Jeff successfully used the ‘defence of necessity’, which in short, permits the breaking of a law if it was broken to avoid a greater evil.

A jury found him not guilty, but the Attorney General disagreed with the verdict and reopened the case. Jeff found himself on bail for two and a half years waiting for his second trial to take place in 2007.

Although unable to use the defence of necessity, he again refused to plead guilty and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service.

In the same year as his second trial, Rhyl council decided they wanted Jeff and Beggars Belief out of their town.

“They made it quite clear that I was bringing Rhyl down,” Jeff said.

The council offered him £80,000 to buy the properties off of him, just £5,000 more than what he paid for several years ago. He went back to the council with a counteroffer of £250,000.

The council attempted to negotiate but Jeff refused to budge and around a week later, the council agreed to pay a quarter of a million pounds for the cafe – more than three times the original offer.

With the closing of Beggars Belief tying in with the end of Jeff’s trial at Crown Court, Bud Buddies decided to move its research and development to Spain, a country that was beginning to open up to the concept of medical cannabis. The organisation continues to operate from the country today.

Growing the evidence

Since launching Bud Buddies in 2001, Jeff and his team have collected detailed feedback from its members. He estimates that the organisation has up to 50,000 individual records from its members.

At this point, Bud Buddies had spent almost a decade tweaking and perfecting its medical cannabis products. This along with its extensive records of anecdotal feedback from patients meant the organisation was ideally placed for assisting the growing community of cannabis researchers in Spain.

In 2015, Bud Buddies raised €35,000 to conduct a study to compare the efficacy of whole plant extracts as an anti-cancer agent versus isolate or synthetic cannabinoids. The organisation also provides “feedback, guidance and suggestions” to researchers, primarily at Madrid Complutense University.

Although its administration and R&D efforts had moved, Bud Buddies has remained active in the UK. Since the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, some of the pressure has been taken off the organisation.

But with access still restricted, Jeff says he and his team are still being contacted by seriously ill people who do not have the funds or do not meet the requirements for a prescription.

Since 2014, Bud Buddies has directed its “scant” resources to assist parents of children with cancer which has now become its primary focus in the UK.

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But despite the UK lifting restrictions, Jeff believes that the country continues to “move backwards”.

“The Home Office in the UK seems to be trying to come up with this narrative since 2018 that there are two different varieties of cannabis; safe cannabis which is prescribed by doctors [that] they approve of, and street cannabis which will make you mad,” Jeff said.

“The UK government has declared war on drugs, which is ridiculous – how do you declare war on an inanimate object?”

Jeff Ditchfield arrest 2018

Jeff Ditchield being arrested outside the Houses of Parliament in 2018.

He continued: “What they mean is they have declared war on the consumers of drugs, but not all drugs. They’ve only declared war on the consumers of drugs that aren’t taxed on licensed. They haven’t declared war on the consumers of alcohol.

“But when I grow it in the UK to give to someone who’s dying of cancer, who’s 10 years old, for example, it’s a dangerous drug and I need to be locked up for 14 years.”

Intent to supply

Jeff was arrested once again in 2018, this time outside the Houses of Parliament while campaigning against the UK government’s approach to cannabis legislation.

He admitted to police officers that he was “in possession of cannabis oil with intent to supply the parent of a dying child”.

The Crown Prosecution Service had little faith in its ability to prosecute Jeff for this offence and dropped all charges.

For Jeff, Bud Buddies was never about simply supplying cannabis; his aim was to educate people and give people the knowledge they needed to become self-sufficient.

“One of our founding principles was that we look forward to the day when we naturally abolish Bud Buddies,” he said.

“That day will be when there is no need for Bud Buddies anymore because people will be able to either grow their own or get it from their local association or Cannabis Club or indeed, from the NHS.

The Medical Cannabis Guidebook, wirtten by Jeff ditchfield and Mel Thomas

The Medical Cannabis Guidebook, written by Jeff Ditchfield and Mel Thomas

“We set up Bud Buddies to empower people to supply themselves. I realised many, many years ago that if we could give people the knowledge they need to be self-sufficient, that knowledge can never be taken away from them.”

Writing the book on cannabis

It was this approach that led to Jeff writing the Medical Cannabis Guidebook; an “exhaustive” guide to cannabis cultivation, complete with legal advice and medical information. Published in 2014, it remains one of the most popular references for medical cannabis users.

Now he has turned his focus to Jamaica where he is working with the Caribbean Cannabis College in Kingston and a number of independent dispensaries and licensed cultivators.

“What I’m interested in at the moment is taking what Bud Buddies have learned through our experiences in the UK and combining that knowledge with the local Jamaican herbal remedies,” he explained.

Working with local herbalists, growers and cannabis experts, Jeff is continuing on his search for the perfect strains to produce the medicinal oils that have changed the lives of so many across the UK.

Advocacy

Emigration: “I tried cannabis again and I noticed that I was in less pain when I took it.”

In a new series, we speak to Irish cannabis patients about their decision to emigrate in search of easier, safer cannabis access.

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Emigration: A stack of suitcases against a window revealing a sunset and a plane

In a new series, Cannabis Health News talks to people who have experienced emigration in search of safe, legal cannabis access.

Our previous stories have focused on the difficulty of packing your entire life into boxes and emigrating with your family to a new country for access. However, there is another side to emigration: the potential for return.

What happens once you are a medical cannabis patient in another country and need to travel home?

The returning Irish from emigration in the past few years has hit record numbers. As people settle into life away from home, it gets harder to return. Travel options have never been easier with several flights to and from Ireland daily from all over the country, ferry options and failing that, zoom calls are a vast improvement on Skype.

COVID lockdowns meant that it’s been a difficult year for travel. Families who have experienced emigration may not have seen in their families since the beginning of the crisis. Now thanks to vaccines, travel is starting to become a possibility again.

This leaves medical cannabis patients in a confusing situation. What do you do if you have a prescription in one country yet need to go to another?

Joe’s story

This is the situation *Joe is in. This is not his real name but he has asked to remain anonymous due to the persisting negative attitudes towards cannabis which he is prescribed for debilitating arthritis.

“I have since the age of 14 suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. I also suffer from sciatica. I played rugby six days a week for my school, worked on the family farm and lived a full and normal life. My body then changed and while initially my shoulders were affected but then my knees. It felt like someone was trying to tear my arms from their sockets and that I had broken glass in my knees. That was 36 years ago.”

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a person’s joints. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the two most common forms of the condition. It can start when a person is between 40 and 50 years old although it also affects children and teenagers.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system targets affected joints causing pain and swelling. The outer covering of the joint is the first place to be affected before it spreads across the joint leading to further swelling and a change in shape. This may cause the bone and cartilage to break down. People with rheumatoid arthritis may also develop problems with other tissues and organs.

The Irish Children’s Arthritis Network (iCAN) estimates there are over one thousand children and teenagers currently diagnosed with juvenile arthritis.

Emigration return

Emigration in Ireland soared in the 1980s as a result of a harsh recession and lack of jobs. It is estimated that during the ten years of the 1980s, 206,000 more people left Ireland.  Like a lot of Irish teenagers unable to find work and looking to leave home, Joe decided to leave Ireland for the UK. While working on a building site, he encountered other workers using cannabis.

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“Although I had my condition to contend with it, my symptoms were at their worst in autumn and winter and I went to the UK in the summer to work on building sites (I had no idea my short visit would last 33 years and counting.”

“I was brought up in Ireland with typical conservative social values. Many fellow workers on site were smoking cannabis but I had no interest and indeed felt it was both inherently morally wrong as well as being illegal.”

“For months my fellow workers would say to try some. I relented when we were out together one night as I had a few drinks so my guard was down. I smoked some cannabis. I was violently ill. I did not know that smoking cannabis with drink would have such an immediate and obvious effect.”

Emigration: A red Irish passport sitting on a black bag

Emigration, cannabis and pain

Joe began to feel more pain as winter began and his joints reacted to the cold. Despite his illness the first time, he tried cannabis again and noticed an effect on his pain levels. His quality of life began to improve and he started to make positive changes.

“I tried cannabis again a few weeks later and by this time the winter was in full flow and my bones were aching. I noticed that I was in less pain when I took it. I prayed for guidance on the issue and felt it was not a sin for me to use cannabis because it was helping to alleviate my symptoms.”

“I then started to use cannabis more frequently. When I reached 19, I no longer needed to take my Voltarol Retard prescription and I was able to cancel an appointment for gold injections. As my condition had relented I was able to reengage with my passion for sport and would swim a mile per day, cycle to and from work and work as a scaffolder during the day.”

“I studied A levels at night school. I returned to studies as I felt if my condition worsened I would not be able to engage in physical labour and I also had a calling to be a lawyer. Anyone who has handled scaffolding tube on a cold winters day will also understand why I felt a move indoors could be a welcome change.”

Joe did well enough in his A levels to gain a place to study law at university. He qualified as a solicitor and worked at one of the top regional practices in the country. He had the honour of meeting Irish President Mary McAleese on one of her trips to Manchester. He credits being able to live such a full life to the benefits of cannabis.

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Breaking the law

However, he was starting to worry about what could happen if his use was to become public knowledge. Especially as someone working in law.

“Cannabis had managed my condition so effectively that I was able to play football for the corporate team and had no outwards signs which could not be dismissed as being down to simple stiffness. I was concerned however that should my use of cannabis become public knowledge my career would be brought to an abrupt end.

“I was leading a double life – cannabis at the time was dismissed as having no medical use and I was afraid no-one would believe me if I said I was taking it for my arthritis.”

Joe stopped using cannabis for three years as he became fed up with breaking the law. He had also noticed attempts to change the law in regards to medical cannabis and wanted to see if he could access it legally. But his symptoms flared up as a result of him stopping his treatment.

“During my cannabis break however my arthritis flared up with a vengeance. Although now prescribed methotrexate, sulfasalazine and naproxen. During my near 30 year use of cannabis prior to this point, I needed no other drugs. Significant bone erosion occurred in this 3 year period.”

“My hands and feet were badly affected and I was unable to form a fist with either hand for about 2 years. I had to stop playing classic guitar. In addition to studying law, I also studied music and played guitar in ensembles and gave performances with others in my spare time so losing the ability to play was quite hard to take”

Joe was delighted when his prescription for cannabis was approved. After taking it for about a year, he found his condition far more under control and began to come off some of the drugs he had been prescribed. He was also able to play the guitar again.

One of the biggest things, he notes, is the feeling of being able to access his medication responsibly and not break the law.

“Cannabis, for me, does have limitations. Once I take it, I won’t drive for the rest of the day. It can give me mood swings although nothing too extreme. I can be grumpier in the mornings. I am mindful that all drugs have their side effect. I am losing my hair due to methotrexate which gives me a number of bladder issues as well as nausea.”

Emigration: two hands packing a suitcase with clothes ready to travel

Emigration and settling

Although Joe is happily settled in the UK with no plans to move home, he still has family in Ireland who he would like to visit. This presents him with an issue, how to pack his prescription?

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Going without cannabis while abroad can result in a lot of pain as Joe discovered when he stopped taking it. However, bringing it with him can result in having to again break the law. The other alternative is accessing the black market which is not safe for patients.

“My elderly parents live in Ireland and I would love to visit them. Ireland’s policy on drugs is different to that of the UK. There is nothing unusual about this as individuals states have their own laws. The UN passed the psychoactive Substances Convention in 1971. The Convention enables international travellers to bring their medication with them to other jurisdictions, even though they have different drug policies. Ireland is a signatory to this convention. The Irish State also supplies details of who to write to seek prior approval for the carriage of controlled drugs.”

Seeking approval

Joe has started an email and letter campaign of writing for help. He is not the only Irish person in the UK who has experienced emigration and wants to travel home. He encourages others to get involved.

“I have on many occasions asked both the relevant Secretary for Health and the Minister for Health for permission to travel to Ireland with my cannabis prescription and for clarification of Ireland’s drug policy for tourists and have pointed out the large numbers of people who could be affected. It’s not just persons prescribed cannabis if Customs is going to seize all controlled drugs.”

“Although nearly 6 months have passed, I am yet to receive either a formal approval or rejection of my request to travel home. In the meantime, my parents are of course getting older as indeed am I.”

There are also other concerns about using cannabis medicine while in another country besides emigrating.

Joe cautions: “To anyone who is thinking of just leaving their cannabis medication at home in the UK and then driving in Ireland, please bear in mind that in addition to dealing with withdrawal symptoms you may also fail a roadside drugs test.”

“It’s not at all clear that you will have a medical defence to a drug driving charge in Ireland. Thus if you want to travel lawfully with a car, consider not taking your cannabis prescription for sufficient time to pass a drug driving test, but obviously, this is impractical for sick people who are only granted a prescription for cannabis where other medicines haven’t worked.”

Joe advises that those thinking of travelling to Ireland with their prescriptions for CBMP should seek approval for their medication. This can be done by writing to the Controlled Drugs Unit in Dublin.

Catch up on part two: Adrienne’s story in our series on medical cannabis and emigration.

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CBD and gaming: Could CBD help you level up?

When it comes to gaming, could CBD give you a competitive edge? Always Pure Organics’ Sally Dempster explores the benefits.

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Always pure organics

Always Pure Organics’ Sally Dempster explores the CBD trend within gaming.

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Gaming Community

The gaming community is growing exponentially, from people playing casually with friends to professional esports competitors, all of whom are contributing to the phenomenal 1.8 billion (US) dollar industry. Especially with the lockdown conditions of Covid-19, the gaming industry has seen a huge surge in revenue and time spent video gaming- increasing by double digits in all regions. The increased amount of time spent gaming can sometimes lead to health problems; frequent players often report physical aches and pains, altered sleep cycles, stress and anxiety. Many of these health problems can be caused by the prolonged periods of time spent at a console or in front of a screen.

Physical aches and pains from gaming can manifest themselves in a variety of forms including carpal tunnel syndrome, gamer’s thumb, and tennis elbow. Avid gamers can sometimes fall prone to these problems which cause inflamed muscles, nerves, or tendons due to overuse.

Whilst cannabidiol (CBD) cannot cure the underlying damage caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, gamer’s thumb or tennis elbow, it may help to reduce overall swelling and it has been shown in studies to relieve inflammation. Research on CBD has also shown that the Cannabis sativa extract may, in some cases, be beneficial as a method of pain relief. Using CBD as a form of pain management could help to relieve pain from gaming conditions, enabling players to be more stress-free and relaxed throughout the natural healing process. It is important to note that using CBD as a method of pain management for acute pain will not result in instant healing; users should be aware that any decrease in pain does not equate to a fully healed injury.

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Gaming: Two men holding gaming devices playing a football game on the Tv

Read more: How medical cannabis could help with rare skin conditions

Gaming and scientific debates

There are ongoing scientific debates as to whether video games induce stress or whether they help to manage and reduce it. The answer to this debate perhaps depends on the level of investment that the player has in the game. Players who spend less time gaming or who only play for recreational and social purposes, for example, are less likely to get stressed during play compared to high stakes players or career gamers.

Evidence points towards CBD having a calming effect on the central nervous system. Taking CBD before gaming may help pre-emptively mitigate stressful feelings, this is due to the fact that CBD is a neurotransmitter that will bind to receptors in the brain. These bindings displace any anxiety-inducing neurotransmitters and stop them from binding to the receptor, which helps to restore equilibrium in the brain.

A recent study determined that video games do affect the stress system, in addition to the cognitive system of humans depending on the game style. Fear inciting games, which feature genres such as, survival, action, and psychological horror is more prone to elicit feelings of stress and tension. The research also demonstrated that the type and level of stress triggered in the players depend on the game style (Aliyari et al., 2021).

Esport competitions have closely monitored regulations regarding doping. Competitions adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of prohibited substances; players found breaking these regulations could find themselves (and their teammates) banned from competing. Cannabidiol is the only cannabinoid compound found in cannabis permitted in esport competitions.

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Although WADA has removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances it is still advised that competitors using the extract choose CBD products carefully as some broad-spectrum products contain low levels of THC which is still a banned substance in esports competitions.

As the number of gamers increases and the industry grows, player gaming injuries will become more prevalent; extracts such as CBD may prove useful in mitigating these issues. Cannabidiol could, in some cases, also aid with the reduction of stress created when playing video games. Especially at high levels of competitive esports, there is an intense amount of pressure on the players to perform; now that WADA has approved CBD for use in competitions it may be able to minimise players’ feelings of stress and anxiety while gaming.

Read more: When should you consider medical cannabis?

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CBD may reduce side effects associated with anti-seizure medications.

Could CBD help with the side effects of anti-seizure medications for people with epilepsy?

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Anti seizure medication: A brown pill bottle on its side with white pills spilling out against a blue background

A study published in the journal, Epilepsy and Behaviour examined CBD’s potential impact on anti-seizure medications for people with epilepsy.

There are 600,0000 people living with Epilepsy in the UK. It’s one of the most common nervous system disorders affecting people of all ages. It’s a neurological condition that can result in seizures. Treatment for epilepsy can include anti-seizure medication, diet therapy such as the ketogenic diet and surgery.

The side effects of medication can include dizziness, nausea, headaches, fatigue, vertigo and blurred vision.

There are medications such as Epidolex prescribed for rare seizure disorders such as Dravet syndrome or Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. However, it is not approved for other forms of epilepsy. There are around 60 different types of seizures and it is possible to have more than one type. Seizures can vary depending on where in the brain they are happening.

The study

Researchers at John Hopkins Medicine in collaboration with the Realm of Caring Foundation and other institutions conducted the observational study.

They analysed data collected between April 2016 and July 2020 from 418 patients. The participants included 71 adults with epilepsy who used artisanal CBD products for medicinal purposes and 209 who were caregivers of children or adults who also used artisanal CBD. The control group of 29 adults with epilepsy who were considering CBD and 109 caregivers who were interested in it for dependent children or adults.

Participants were asked to fill in a survey and answer questions about their quality of life, anxiety, depression and sleep. They were also given follow up surveys every three months for over a year.

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Read more: Can CBD help me sleep?

Anti seizure medication: A golden bottle of oil against a green background with a dropper dripping oil into the bottle.

The results

In comparison with the control group, artisanal CBD users reported 13 percent lower epilepsy medication-related adverse effects. They also had 21 percent greater psychological health satisfaction at the beginning of the study.

Their anxiety was recorded as being 19 percent lower and depression was 17 percent. Both the adult and youth groups reported better quality sleep than the control group.

The caregivers of patients currently using CBD reported 13 percent less stress and burden in comparison with the control group. Patients in the control group who started using artisanal CBD reported improvements in their physical and psychological health. They also self-recorded reductions in anxiety and depression.

Reactions

Participants were asked to record possible adverse effects related to their CBD use. Among all of the participants, 79 percent did not report any effects.

Of the remaining participants, 11 percent reported potential drowsiness, 4 percent said their symptoms may have gotten worse, 3 percent had concerns about the legality and 4 percent worried about the cost of the profits.

The researchers reported that further research is needed to understand how the findings could be applied to patients. They also stated that patients should consult with their doctor before trying CBD products.

Read more: When should you consider medical cannabis?

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