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Medical cannabis and Tourette’s – “The truth needs to be out there”

Tourette’s syndrome affects over 300,000 adults and children in the UK.

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Jim Finch (right) and his consultant Dr Tahzid Ahsan are both involved in Project Twenty21.

To mark Tourette’s Awareness Month medical cannabis patient and Project Twenty21 participant, Jim Finch, and his prescribing consultant, Dr Tahzid Ahsan, share their journey with the ‘life-changing’ treatment.

In 2018, Jim Finch was involved in a serious car accident which left him severely injured and battling a number of complex neurological conditions. 

Overnight he went from being a young, fit and healthy dad to suffering constant motor and  vocal tics and coprolalia, as a result of his Tourette’s syndrome

Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological condition affecting over 300,000 adults and children in the UK.

The condition causes patients to suffer involuntary and uncontrollable sounds and movements, known as tics. In many cases, these are not harmful to the person’s overall health, but severe Tourette’s can still have a huge impact on their quality of life.

Common treatment options include behavioural therapies such as Habit Reversal Therapy (HRT) and Comprehensive Behavioural Intervention Therapy (CBIT), as well as a range of psychiatric drugs. 

Although none of these have been developed specifically for Tourette’s and the focus is on reducing or controlling the tics through behavioural, rather than medicinal, intervention.

Jim Finch developed Tourette’s after a serious car accident

Jim was prescribed dozens of pharmaceuticals to manage his symptoms, none of which were able to control his tics and instead plagued him with more side effects. His hair fell out, he developed stomach issues and asthma and was too drowsy to play with his son.

Then someone sent him a YouTube video of a Tourette’s patient whose tics were controlled by consuming cannabis and he began his own research. 

“I typed in Tourette’s and cannabis on YouTube and I saw somebody who had constant tics and fits like me, who used cannabis and it stopped them,” says Jim.

“At that point I started looking into the research that has been done in Germany and Canada.”

A number of papers have been published with encouraging results around the treatment of Tourette’s with medical cannabis.

One study from 2017 reported that 18 out of the 19 participants were “much improved”, and their tics scores decreased by 60 percent, while a six-week randomised control trial from 2003 concluded that THC is “effective and safe” in the treatment of tics

Jim, now 32, joined Drug Science’s Project Twenty21 in January, after a period of self-medicating and finding that cannabis was helpful for his symptoms.

“I’ve gone to three different doctors now who have all managed to prescribe me,” he says.

“Since I’ve had a prescription for cannabis it’s changed my life, it doesn’t stop my tics completely but they are not all-consuming anymore.

“I’ve gone from strength to strength not having to worry about breaking the law to medicate. It’s a bizarre situation that patients have found themselves in, when there’s probably no doctor in the country that would see the effects of me taking cannabis and think I shouldn’t have access to it.”

Tourette’s is one of the seven conditions covered by Project Twenty21, which range from pain and MS to anxiety, PTSD and epilepsy, although the project hopes to expand to include more conditions in the future.

There are currently only a small number of patients with the condition enrolled in the study – out of  almost 1,000 patients, the vast majority of which are diagnosed with chronic pain or anxiety-related conditions – but Drug Science is keen to encourage other Tourette’s patients to come forward and see if medical cannabis could work for them.

Jim is currently on a combination of four different products, after several months of working closely with his doctors to find the right dosage and strains.

He was the first patient with Tourette’s that his current consultant Dr Tahzid Ahsan had treated since he joined Project Twenty21 in November last year.

Dr Tahzid Ahsan is a prescriber on Project Twenty21

“I didn’t know a lot about the condition, but Mr Finch had done a lot of research and I was very much led by him,” says Dr Ahsan, a consultant psychiatrist in the NHS, who has now prescribed cannabis medicines privately to hundreds of patients with mental health conditions, ranging from anxiety, depression and insomnia to complex PTSD.

“I started with the same as I would prescribe to patients with anxiety or depression and went from there. 

“Mr Finch was the one who worked out what he needed and we gradually tailored it to his needs.

Dr Ahsan has now worked with a number of other patients with a diagnosis of Tourette’s after seeing how cannabis medicines were transformative for Jim.

“I was a little bit reluctant to prescribe indica throughout the day, but seeing the difference it makes to Mr Finch has given me the confidence to do that with other patients,” he adds.

Jim finds that heavy indica strains are more effective at managing his symptoms.

He experiences some mild side-effects, such as drowsiness and having to take a short nap in the afternoon and finds he gets hungry more often, but says: “It’s nothing in comparison to having tics all day or the side-effects I experienced from pharmaceuticals.”

To help raise awareness of medical cannabis, Jim has been sharing his journey on YouTube and social media, where his videos – which show the instantaneous effects of cannabis on his tics – have been known to go viral.

“I was suffering before Project Twenty21,” he says.

“It’s uncomfortable watching the earlier videos of me, because that’s my life if I don’t medicate.

“My son has witnessed me have so many fits and seizures and he’s only three, he shouldn’t have seen that.”

Jim is using his platform to educate people and help other patients access medical cannabis.

“I know the power cannabis medicines can have and I feel compelled to make sure others are aware that it is an option,” he says.

“We’re in an age now where information can be shared, and the truth needs to be out there.

“The more people’s lives it changes, the better the evidence will be and the more stigma will get broken down, the better the conversation and the further the industry grows.”

Since joining Project Twenty21 Dr Ahsan has also experienced a shift in perspective, and says seeing the transformation in patients like Jim has been an “eye-opener”.

“I went into this very naive,” he admits.

 “For the last 20 years I’ve been taught that THC is bad, there has been a stigma attached to cannabis, but working with patients like Mr Finch I’m moving in the other direction.”

Dr Ahsan continues: “In traditional Western medicine everyone with a mental illness has a label, and as doctors, we prescribe pills which may or may not make them better. 

“Medical cannabis doesn’t assume there is anything wrong with you, it doesn’t try to correct anything, it actually enhances you and helps you to cope with everyday life.”

He adds: “The feedback I’m getting from patients is incredible, people say it has transformed their lives.

“That mentality has been a breath of fresh air, it’s actually helped me to grow as a doctor.”

Find out more about Project Twenty21 

Sarah Sinclair is a respected cannabis journalist writing on subjects related to science, medicine, research, health and wellness. She is managing editor of Cannabis Health, the UK’s leading title covering medical cannabis and CBD, and sister title and Psychedelic Health. Sarah has an NCTJ journalism qualification and an MA in Journalism from the University of Sunderland. Sarah has over six years experience working on newspapers, magazines and digital-first titles, the last two of which have been in the cannabis sector. She has also completed training through the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society securing a certificate in Medical Cannabis Explained. She is a member of PLEA’s (Patient-Led Engagement for Access) advisory board, has hosted several webinars on cannabis and women's health and has moderated at industry events such as Cannabis Europa. Sarah Sinclair is the editor of Cannabis Health. Got a story? Email sarah@prohibitionpartners.com / Follow us on Twitter: @CannabisHNews / Instagram: @cannabishealthmag

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