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Why women in pain are turning to medical cannabis



The current model of medicine has largely ignored the complexity of the female body

The current medical system sees women’s pain routinely dismissed, while complex conditions are often left undiagnosed and untreated for years. Now many are looking for another option. 

“From when I started my period aged 11 up until my early 20s, was a decade where I honestly didn’t feel listened to at all,” says Jessica*.

“My doctors would blame it on puberty and hormones and repeatedly prescribe me the contraceptive pill. But even on the pill I would soak through the heaviest Tampax and the night time sanitary towel within an hour.”

She adds: “I was definitely made to feel that I was exaggerating my pain and being dramatic about it.”

Jessica, 29, was dismissed by her doctors for years as just having “bad periods”.

By the time she was in her late teens she was regularly missing school. Once at university, she would find herself bed bound in excruciating pain every time she got her period. Then sex became painful too. 

“About six years ago it got too much and I went back to the doctor,” she recalls.

“As I started explaining he immediately said, ‘oh, women who are promiscuous often have these issues’.

“I hadn’t told him my sexual history at all, so to be automatically labelled as being promiscuous when I wasn’t even sexually active due to the pain, was a real slap in the face and so unprofessional.”

After a full sexual health check and a trans-vaginal ultrasound Jessica was later told she had a thickening of the uterus. It wasn’t until a few months later at a routine pill check-up that the nurse asked if she was on the pill for her endometriosis.

“I had no idea what she was talking about,” she says. 

“She showed me on the screen the doctor’s note that I suspected endometriosis. They had known for six months and no one had thought to tell me.”

It takes on average seven and a half years to diagnosis endometriosis

The body is a battleground

Endometriosis is the second most common gynaecological condition in the UK, affecting around one in 10, or 1.5 million women – although frequent misdiagnosis and a lack of understanding in the medical profession mean this figure is likely to be higher.

Although there is no known cause, the condition is characterised by tissue similar to the lining of the womb that starts to grow in other places in a woman’s reproductive system.

It is commonly associated with pelvic or abdominal pain, but can also cause significant pain elsewhere in the body and lead to other symptoms, including painful sex, reduced fertility and fatigue. These can be completely debilitating and significantly impact a woman’s quality of life. 

Jessica’s case is far from unique. On average it takes seven and a half years from the onset of symptoms for a woman to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis. 

This is exacerbated by the fact it can only be diagnosed for definite by a laparoscopy, a surgery used to examine the organs inside the abdomen. 

When Jessica was finally referred to a gynaecologist and underwent the surgery, they found stage four – the most severe form of endometriosis – on her uterus, ovaries, bladder and pouch of Douglas.

“I’ve been told that the pain will never go away because of where the lesions were,” says Jessica, who is now a reproductive health advocate and blogs her experience on The Endo Monologues, a satirical diary from the point of view of her uterus.

Once I was referred to my gynaecologist she was amazing and she took me seriously. She said I should have been referred months, if not years ago.”

Jessica started a blog about women’s health and endometriosis

Like many women living with complex, undiagnosed health conditions, Jessica was made to believe that there was something wrong with her, that her symptoms were “just the way her body was”.

There is a long history of women’s pain being treated differently to that of men. Countless women feel they have been dismissed, not taken seriously and ‘medically gaslighted’ –  a term used to describe the downplaying of symptoms with non-medical or emotional reasons by healthcare professionals – into believing their pain isn’t real.

It’s all in your head

There are biological differences in how women and men experience pain. Women supposedly experience more severe and frequent levels of pain, for a longer duration than men and are more likely to report migraines, musculoskeletal pain, and pain from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. Despite this, women are taken less seriously and are more likely to have their pain discounted as “emotional” or “psychogenic” and, therefore, “not real.

Women often have to make more visits to the doctor than men in order to be referred to a specialist and a 2014 Swedish study found that once in A&E women waited longer to be seen and were less likely to be classed as urgent cases.

If women aren’t taken seriously for conditions which affect both sexes, there is little hope for those which predominantly effect women and therefore aren’t widely studied in medical school.

The current model of medicine has largely ignored the complexity of the female body and many women are still unaware of female health conditions such as pelvic inflammatory syndrome (PIS) or vulvodynia, which often go undiagnosed and untreated for years. 

In her book, Sex Matters, Dr Alyson McGregor points out that the “male-centric medical system” doesn’t allow for the subtlety and complexity of female-specific health issues. 

“We have blanket terms for women’s symptoms (like PMS) but we don’t have a system for delving into those issues in a way that can consistently result in accurate diagnoses,” writes McGregor.

A report published in the Guardian last week revealed that women were twice as likely to be prescribed strong opioid medications such as codeine and Tramadol, with female sources telling the newspaper they felt “fobbed off” with painkillers while doctors failed to investigate the underlying causes of their symptoms. 

Last year a Government inquiry uncovered that serious medical conditions were commonly dismissed as “women’s problems”, contributing to a string of healthcare scandals over several decades.

Dr Sally Ghazaleh

Dr Sally Ghazaleh is a pain management specialist

Dr Sally Ghazaleh, female pain consultant at Integro Medical Clinics, and pain management consultant at Whittington Hospital, and the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, believes a lack of knowledge among GPs, plus a stigma that still exists around women’s health is to blame. 

“A lack of knowledge at a primary care setting and perhaps women being met with scepticism, a lack of comprehension and feeling rejected, ignored, or blamed for their condition and experiencing a stigma towards women’s health, all contribute to conditions such as PIS and vulvodynia being undiagnosed and untreated for many years,” she says.

“At the same time doctors want to ensure there is no underlying cause that could be the source of the pain. Therefore patients will be referred to the specialist and by the time they will be seen this can be a very long time, which can have a huge psychosocial impact on women’s health.”

The UK government is now launching a review in an attempt to better understand women’s experiences of the modern healthcare system, including how pain is treated, which it says will create the first-ever government-led Women’s Health Strategy. 

Seeking validation

In the meantime, many women are looking for alternative options.

Jessica has used CBD to manage her symptoms for around two years and now has a legal private prescription for medical cannabis subsidised through Drug Science’s Project Twenty21.

Cannabis allows her to manage her pain without the debilitating side effects of opioids.

“I vividly remember after my first surgery, they pumped so much morphine into me,” she says. 

“I had no idea that a [medical cannabis] prescription would even be an option for me until someone suggested it.

“It would have been so much easier for me to go to the doctor and ask for some opioid based medication, than it was for me to get medicinal cannabis, but I don’t particularly like taking pharmaceuticals and I’d much rather take cannabis daily than morphine.”

Speaking to Cannabis Health earlier this year, Dr Rebecca Moore, a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma, anxiety and mood disorders, particularly related to women’s health, said she believes gender bias in the medical system drives women to look for another option.

“A lot of people come to us with stories of not being heard and of being dismissed, particularly from young women presenting with pain and perhaps unusual symptoms, with some form of mood component,” said Moore, who has supported hundreds of patients to access cannabis medicines since leaving her role in the NHS in 2018.

“There’s definitely something about the way medicine is gendered, that does lead people to look for another option.

“A lot of women have been told they’re depressed when clearly they are not, or they have been told that their pain can’t exist… I think it drives them to see cannabis as a route where they might be validated.”

Headshot of Freya Papwrorth

Freya has spent tens of thousands on alternative therapies to manage her pain.

Thirty-six-year-old women’s rights advocate, Freya Papworth, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia only two years ago despite being in pain since the age of 13. 

As a teenager doctors blamed her pain on the fact she carried her rucksack on one shoulder, then said it was the effects of a car accident she was involved in aged 21.

She spent years believing she was “going mad”, suffering from severe pain, major fatigue and constant sickness, before finally getting a diagnosis through a private clinic.

“I’ve been sent to a psychologist multiple times, because I must be crazy rather than have doctors take my pain seriously,” says Freya, who has spent upwards of £30,000 on alternative therapies such as private pilates classes, acupuncture, massage, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy.

She is currently self-medicating with cannabis while she explores the possibility of getting a prescription.

“You can see why more women are turning to alternative therapies. We are routinely ignored and disbelieved. Medicine is routinely not tested on women and we are often let down by the healthcare system.

“Then we are ridiculed for trying mindfulness or essential oils, when we’re just in pain and want to try and find something that works.”

The science to back it up

Increasing numbers of women are finding cannabis medicines helpful in managing their health conditions.

Since the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, many patients have discovered that the rebalancing of their endocannabinoid system can be effective in the management of conditions such as endometriosis, bladder and nerve pain, gynaecological pain and PMS, as well as mental health conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and depression.

“The endocannabinoid system plays a major role in many bodily functions, including sleep, stress, emotions, pain and immune responses,” explains Dr Ghazaleh.

“There are a multitude of cannabis receptors and endocannabinoids in the uterus and female reproductive system. That is why cannabis affects men and women differently and women appear to be much more sensitive than men to many aspects of phytocannabinoid action.” 

Endometriosis has been linked to endocannabinoid deficiency. Women with the condition are thought to have fewer cannabinoid receptors in their pelvis, meaning their body isn’t equipped with the tools that would normally prevent the growth of aberrant cells and destroy them. 

Studies have shown that when certain cannabinoid receptors are activated (either by the body’s endocannabinoids or THC found in cannabis) this could prevent cells from multiplying, while compounds such as CBD may stop the cells from migrating. 

On top of this cannabis is an effective painkiller, with its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to desensitise pain receptors around the body.

Ghazaleh adds: “In view of the significance of the endocannabinoid system in female reproductive systems, medication that may interfere with cannabinoid action are now considered alternative options for women’s health.

Beyond the stigma

But many women are still reluctant to be open about their use of cannabis medicines.

Freya says: “It’s interesting the amount of women I come across who are curious about trying it, just normal, suburban women. 

“I don’t think many of us are being honest with our GPS, we’re worried about the stigma of being seen as a drug addict.”

Apart from her followers online – to whom she remains anonymous – only Jessica’s mum and partner know that she has a medical cannabis prescription. 

Due to the nature of her job she is unable to disclose that she takes cannabis daily, despite the fact her prescription is legal.

“There’s still a stigma about cannabis in this country,” she says. 

“A lot of people don’t even realise they could be eligible for a prescription,” she says.

“Women are made to jump through hoops to get a diagnosis. Whether it’s a gynaecological issue or not, we are not as high on the radar as men are and the gender pain gap is a real issue.

“I think it’s important for women to know that cannabis-based therapies are available and that they might be more suitable for them.”

Jessica and Dr Sally Ghazaleh, will take part in an upcoming webinar exploring the role of cannabis medicines in women’s health. The first episode on Wednesday 12 May at 7pm will focus on women in pain and their battle to get a diagnosis.

Other speakers include Abby Hughes, outreach director of PLEA (Patient-Led Engagement for Access) and Sarah Higgins CNS, women’s health lead for Cannabis Patients Advocacy and Support Services (CPASS). 

The event is hosted by Cannabis Health in association with Integro Medical Clinics and CPASS, sign up for free here



New research refutes ‘gateway drug’ fears over cannabis legalisation

Young adults consumed less alcohol, cigarettes and other substances following cannabis legalisation in Washington State.



New research refutes cannabis as 'gateway drug' theory
Adult-use cannabis has been legal in Washington State since 2012

Young adults consume less alcohol, cigarettes and other substances following cannabis legalisation, according to a new study.

A paper published earlier this month by researchers at the University of Washington, found that young people consumed less alcohol, nicotine, and non-prescribed pain medication, after cannabis was legalised for adult-use. 

Researchers assessed trends in alcohol, nicotine, and non-prescribed pain reliever use among a cohort of over 12,500 young adults (ages 18 to 25) in Washington State following legalisation in 2012.

Contrary to concerns about the detrimental effects on wider society, according to the study, “the implementation of legalised non-medical cannabis coincided with decreases in alcohol and cigarette use and pain reliever misuse.”

The findings show that prevalence of alcohol use, heavy episodic drinking and cigarette use in the past month, as well as prevalence of past-year pain reliever misuse decreased. 

While the prevalence of substance use other than cannabis was “higher among occasional and frequent cannabis users compared to cannabis non-users”, associations between cannabis and pain reliever misuse and heavy episodic drinking “weakened over time”. 

However the team did find that the prevalence of past-month e-cigarette use had increased post-legalisation.

They concluded: “Our findings add to evidence that the legalisation of non-medical cannabis has not led to dramatic increases in the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and non-prescribed opioids.

“The findings indicate that the most critical public health concerns surrounding cannabis legalisation and the evolution of legalised cannabis markets may be specific to cannabis use and related consequences.”

Commenting on the study’s findings, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “Real-world data from legalisation states disputes longstanding claims that cannabis is some sort of ‘gateway’ substance. In fact, in many instances, cannabis regulation is associated with the decreased use of other substances, including many prescription medications.”

Cannabis legalisation in the UK

Cannabis legalisation is a hot topic in the UK at the moment, following London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s fact-finding trip to LA last week. He subsequently announced that he would be launching a review panel to explore the possibility of decriminalisation in the UK. 

This has sparked debate among politicians, media personalities and the general public alike. 

While Home Secretary Priti Patel shared her thoughts that cannabis can “ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives”, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse described it as an “entry level drug”. 

And even Labour refused to get behind Khan, saying the party “does not support changing the law on drugs.”

But recent polling suggests the politicians may be out of touch with the public. YouGov polls show that more than half of Londoners support the mayor’s proposals. 

Meanwhile a poll last year revealed that 52 per cent of the population either ‘strongly supported’ or  ‘tended to support’ legalisation. 


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Medical cannabis in the mainstream – the top headlines this week

Get up to date on the week’s headlines.



Medical cannabis in the mainstream - the top headlines this week

This week the media has been dominated with responses to Sadiq Khan’s controversial fact-finding mission to LA and plans for cannabis decriminalisation.

Although stories of police raids and cannabis farm busts continue to make up the majority of major cannabis headlines, the mainstream media is increasingly covering new developments in the cannabis space, from policy to patient stories.

Over the past few days, MPs have been responding to Sadiq Khan’s controversial trip to LA cultivators and dispensaries, while the Daily Express reported on a new study about a cannabis-based product aiming to treat chronic pain. Here are the week’s five top cannabis headlines not to miss.

The medical cannabis clinic banner

New study into cannabis for chronic pain

Daily Express spoke to the managing director of LVL Health, Tony Samios, about the company’s feasibility study which explores the effects of a cannabis-based product for chronic pain. The study will use cannabis flower in pre-filled cartridges and aims to build the data and evidence needed to improve patient access on the NHS.

Samios told the Express that the study is set to be a “game-changer in bridging the gap between evidence and making change using a rigorous scientific approach” providing “reliable data that is essentially missing”.

Sadiq Khan’s time would be “better spent focusing on knife and drug crime”, says Patel

Priti Patel made her thoughts on Sadiq Khan’s plan to consider cannabis legalisation in London clear in a Twitter post last week.

“Sadiq Khan’s time would be better spent focusing on knife and drug crime in London. The Mayor has no powers to legalise drugs. They ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives,” Patel said in the Tweet.

Her rebuke comes after Sadiq Khan’s recent trip to the US which included a fact-finding mission to LA to understand more about an international evidence-based approach to reducing drug-related harm in the capital. The London mayor also announced the launch of a new London Drugs Commission.

Policing Minister Kit Malthouse expressed a similar view to Patel. Last week he told The Sun: “I find it baffling that just last week, the Mayor of London thought it appropriate to stage a photoshoot in a cannabis farm in LA, to reiterate his support for the legalisation of this entry level drug. I profoundly wish he would focus on knife crime and violence taking place in the capital instead.”

Khan initially made his plans clear last year prior to his re-election, saying that he would consider decriminalising cannabis in the capital if he were to be voted in as mayor for a second term.

The Labour party’s response to Khan’s cannabis plan

The likes of Huffington Post, Daily Mail and iNews reported on the Labour party’s response to Sadiq Khan’s plans for cannabis law reform last week.

The party’s stance was made clear in a statement that stated: “Labour does not support changing the law on drugs. Drugs policy is not devolved to mayors and under Labour would continue to be set by national Government.”

HuffPost UK reported that a number of shadow cabinet members were “furious” at Khan’s comments, including Yvette Cooper. “Yvette is furious about it,” a Labour source told HuffPost UK. “People are just rolling their eyes because it definitely is not the official party line.”

Although it goes against his party’s official stance, Khan’s plan reflects data gathered by YouGov which has found that the majority of UK citizens are in support of cannabis legalisation.

Another source told the online outlet: “Sadiq has positioned himself as a progressive mayor on the side of the public prepared to take on the tough questions to genuinely tackle crime rather than pointless posturing that isn’t even popular anyway.”

Meanwhile, iNews reported that Labour MPs “let rip” in a private WhatsApp group. “This is going to go down like a bucket of cold sick in my bit of the suburbs just now… Crime up, police numbers still way below where people think they should be, so Labour is going to have a chat about drugs… Inspired,” said Gareth Thomas, the Shadow International Trade minister.

Not all Labour MPs have responded negatively, however. The Daily Mail reported on Shadow Cabinet minister Ed Miliband’s response to Khan’s plans. Although he highlighted that Khan did not reflect the Party’s position, he said Labour “welcome[s] Sadiq looking at these issues because this debate should carry on”.

“Cannabis ruins lives and legalising it won’t help”

In response to Sadiq Khan’s US visit, journalist and campaigner Louise Perry offered her opinion in an article for the London Evening Standard. While she said she would be “happy” to see possession of small amounts of cannabis made legal, but added that legalising the cannabis industry is “another matter entirely”.

The article is unlikely to sit well with cannabis campaigners and advocates thanks to its comparison between cannabis and tobacco, a focus on the dangers of psychosis and the lack of attention given to studies showing the positive effects of cannabis on health and wellbeing.

“Industries employ lobbyists to disguise the harmful effects of the products they sell,” Perry writes. “This has happened many times before.

“By the early 50s, the scientific evidence was clear: tobacco was killing people. And yet it would be 20 years until warning signs appeared on the side of cigarette packets sold in the UK. This tardiness was the result of lobbying by the tobacco industry, which opposed health authorities every step of the way.”

Patient faces dispute with council over housing

A man living in Norwich who holds a private cannabis prescription says he is facing difficulties finding a new place to live after being told by the city council to disclose his indoor cannabis use to landlords.

As reported by Norwich Evening News, Danny Wilson is prescribed legal cannabis by TMCC Medical Clinic for chronic pain, ADHD and anxiety. Wilson – who is currently on universal credit and personal independence payments due to his condition – pays between £700 and £1,000 per month for his medication.

Mr Wilson said: “I’ve repeatedly told them forcing me to go around approaching landlords and agents this way is causing me trauma but they ignored me.”

Despite never having being in prison, the city council offered him a place at House of Genesis, a rehoming initiative for ex-offenders.

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Medical cannabis in the mainstream – the UK’s top stories

All your cannabis news in one place



There has been a mix of cannabis-related stories in the media over the past week. In case you missed them, we’ve compiled some of the headlines.

This week, news outlets such as The Guardian and The Telegraph have reported on UK medical cannabis labs, cannabis use for fibromyalgia and a rise in drug-driving cases amongst medical consumers.

Inside one of the UK’s first medical cannabis labs

The Guardian’s Julia Kollewe visited a growing lab owned by Celadon Pharmaceuticals, one of the first cultivation sites to be granted a home office licence to grow high-THC medical cannabis in the UK. The site is based in the West Midlands and grows cannabis predominantly for chronic pain. It is one of the only cannabis cultivators in the country to use an indoor lab rather than greenhouses.

According to The Guardian, Celadon is planning to ramp up production, aiming to grow 10 to 15 tonnes a year and supply up to 50,000 patients. At full capacity, the lab could generate £90m in annual revenues.

Founder James Short said: “I speak to patients on a regular basis who can’t work and are in terrible pain each day, that don’t want to be on opioids. Some are having to pay hundreds of pounds each month for medicinal cannabis. It really does work.”

US research programme studies cannabinoids in ovarian cancer

“Massive injustice” – medical cannabis patients facing driving offences

In a less positive story, The Telegraph reported that medicinal cannabis patients are increasingly being prosecuted for drug driving with arrests reportedly doubling in the last four years.

Those taking cannabis may face a positive result in police roadside testing up to 72 hours after taking the drug. Although studies have shown driving capabilities are not impaired after this length of time, patients still face prosecution.

Since 2016, arrests linked with drug driving have increased by 140 per cent, according to police figures obtained by The Telegraph.

But while medical cannabis patients are at risk of arrest, those taking opiate-based prescription drugs are permitted to drive even if they are over the lawful limit, provided they follow their doctor’s advice.

The Telegraph spoke to one patient, David Dancy, who was being prosecuted for drug driving despite the fact he had taken his prescription 12 hours prior to getting in his car. The 33-year-old said the prosecution is “a massive injustice”.

Fibromyalgia and arthritis patient on how cannabis changed her life

Andrea Wright, a medical cannabis patient from Bristol, spoke to The Guardian about her ongoing battle with psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia. The 39-year-old was diagnosed in 2016, suffering from constant pain and severe lack of sleep. She eventually was forced to leave her job due to her ill health.

“I had to stop work because the pain was too much. It’s been very depressing; I really enjoyed my job. I tried so many different therapies and managed to get my arthritis under control but for fibromyalgia, there isn’t anything, no magical pill,” Wright told The Guardian.

After trying medical cannabis as part of a study run by LVL Health, she found she was able to get her first “proper night’s sleep” since 2012. She is now back at work and now aiming to reduce her reliance on opioid painkillers.

300 campaigners march through streets of Cardiff

Campaigners calling for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK marched through Cardiff city centre this weekend, WalesOnline reported on Saturday (7 May).  This was the first protest to take place in Wales since before the pandemic.

The march was organised by Terry Wakefield, who has been involved in cannabis campaigning since 1999. She told WalesOnline that the stigma surrounding cannabis was pushing the trade further underground.

“Cannabis is my medicine. I suffer complex PTSD and this march might sometimes be the only time I’m outside,” she said. “If I was in a position where I could go to my GP and ask for a prescription I would do.

“If we are able to consume cannabis in the UK then we should have a right to grow our own. The more this stays illegal the more it will be pushed underground and the more gangs and slaves in Britain.”

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