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Mental health, addiction and medical cannabis – an expert’s insight

We sit down with the recently-appointed medical director of The Medical Cannabis Clinics, Dr Luisa Searle.

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Mental health, addiction and medical cannabis - an expert's insight

The recently-appointed medical director of The Medical Cannabis Clinics, Dr Luisa Searle, shares how her background in psychiatry and addiction is feeding into her new role. 

Dr Luisa Searle has been treating patients with addiction disorders for the last six years, seeing patients struggling with substance misuse and establishing outreach services for young people and the homeless across London. 

Now, she is helping people legally access cannabis, a substance that has historically been demonised as a ‘gateway drug’. 

Feeling burnt out and craving a fresh new challenge, Dr Searle was looking for a change in her career when she crossed paths with The Medical Cannabis Clinics, joining the team as medical director in April this year. 

anxiety: A banner advert for the medical cannabis clinics

“It frustrates me, this division that there seems to be in mental health, whereby if you’ve got a substance misuse issue, you’re not worthy of mental health treatment,” Dr Searle told Cannabis Health. 

“But actually, your mental health is often being self-medicated by substances and whether you agree with that or not, that’s how some people cope.”

Prior to joining TMCC, Dr Searle was unaware that medical cannabis was beginning to be prescribed more widely.

She was coming into the industry with a fresh perspective, and despite her background in addiction medicine, she said she had very little prejudice against cannabis. 

“It didn’t make sense to me to not explore it,” Dr Searle said.

Dr Luisa Searle, medical director at The Medical Cannabis Clinics

A balanced approach

“I’m not here to say it’s a wonder drug. I’m not here to say it doesn’t have its risks or side effects. It’s by no means suitable for everybody, but this idea that it’s a substance of abuse and not even [worth] researching as a potential medicine I think is, unfortunately, based in historical racism and hysteria, which has no place in science as far as I’m concerned.”

But while she was intrigued by this new and emerging field of medicine, due to her past experience, she was determined to take a “balanced approach” to prescribing. 

For Dr Searle, it is imperative that cannabis is seen for what it is. While it has immense potential for managing hard-to-treat conditions and a possible alternative to physically addictive opioids, it is still a substance that can cause dependence. 

“Any substance, legal or illegal, with some psychoactive effect has the potential for abuse, but that’s where I come in as the doctor,” Dr Searle said. 

“If I felt that you needed diazepam, that prescription is entirely under my control. It is down to me to work with patients  to try to prevent [dependency] from happening and to advise and educate them, so that they can make informed decisions about their care.”

Dr Searle is only three months into her role at TMCC but she is already seeing the positive impact that medical cannabis is having on patients. 

People with difficult-to-treat conditions like insomnia and anxiety are seeing improvements in their lives after trying numerous conventional treatments that failed to help. 

Meanwhile, patients who have previously relied on pharmaceuticals like antidepressants and SSRIs  – which can come with severe side effects – were able to “feel themselves” again after reducing their dose of traditional medication in favour of medical cannabis. 

“What’s really been nice is seeing success with people who have tried lots of different conventional treatments and haven’t really gotten anywhere,” Dr Searle said.

“I was talking to a gentleman who had a traumatic brain injury and was getting migraines on a regular basis. He had really struggled with his work and his life. With a small amount of medicinal cannabis flower, he feels much more himself.

“That’s the really nice thing [about] working in this clinic; just seeing that turnaround in people who’ve been quite stuck.”

NHS access

Having worked for the NHS for 15 years, Dr Searle is a firm believer in everyone having access to the healthcare they need. 

Right now, this does not apply to the medical cannabis space. Very few people have been able to access an NHS prescription while private prescriptions can cost hundreds per month. 

“It is a little bit challenging for me that I have to be in a private clinic in order to provide medical cannabis treatment,” Dr Searle said.

“While TMCC has extremely reasonable prices in comparison to other types of private health care, it is still a cost and if you’re on a low income it might as well be a million pounds.”

Dr Searle wants to see medical cannabis being more widely prescribed, but it has to be “sensible” with regulations around who can prescribe and how. 

She continued: “Why shouldn’t it be available on the NHS in the right circumstances? What I don’t want to see is what can potentially happen with opioids – with people becoming dependent on them.

“It’s not a medication for all. There are concerns, particularly among younger people. We’re still not 100 per cent clear as to the risks around potentially life-changing mental health issues and specifically psychosis.”

Importance of eduction

Dr Searle has not encountered huge numbers of cases where recreational users have later developed psychosis, but she has seen enough for it to be a concern. 

“It’s not something that I could just dismiss,” she said.

“When we have young people coming to us, it’s all about education. It’s just like any medication, if you start on antidepressants, you don’t start with a high dose, you start on a low dose and build it up. You check the tolerance and you review the patient regularly to see if there have been any improvements or side effects.”

Dr Searle also points out that studies into psychosis and cannabis use have examined street cannabis rather than medical-grade products prescribed by clinics like TMCC. 

“Street cannabis potentially has incredibly high levels of THC and very low levels of CBD,” she said

The benefits for some patients speak for themselves, but Dr Searle stresses the fact that a medical cannabis prescription is not right for everyone. 

“Whilst I think [medical cannabis] is great and we get lots of positive feedback, we do have some adverse reactions to it where it’s not suitable,” she said.

“People shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security that just because your doctor prescribed it and it’s legal for medicinal use it’s not without its risks.”

Dr Searle sees a lot of potential in cannabis as an alternative drug for chronic mental health disorders and pain, even as a possible method for weaning patients off opioids. But she warns that people who are prone to addiction may end up transferring their dependency from one substance to another. 

“If you break your leg, opioids are fantastic for that, but what they’re not so good for is chronic pain,” she said. 

“The withdrawal process from them can be horrendous and there could be a place for cannabis to alleviate some of those withdrawal symptoms.”

But, she added: “I think I would be much more cautious about that, simply because until you’ve dealt with and understood your addiction and those behaviours and those are resolved and you’ve engaged with other ways to cope with your emotional stresses, you may just be switching one addiction for another.”

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