Legalise Cannabis Alliance | A BREAST cancer victim made medical history recently, as the first person in Scotland to be prescribed cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain.
Former National Health Service nurse Jeanie Rae, 57, has been taking a purified extract of the controversial drug to treat the agonising nerve damage in her right arm caused by an operation and radiotherapy to beat her cancer.
The pain left her virtually imprisoned in her home in Balfron, Stirlingshire, for nearly four years because she could not bare even the lightest touch.
Standard medications given to her to help deal with the suffering had little effect. But but in 2007 she was offered the cannabis-based drug Sativex by doctors at the pain management clinic in Gartnaval Hospital, Glasgow, as part of a clinical trial.
Rae became one of the first people in the UK to be given the drug on prescription after doctors allowed her to continue taking it after the trial, given the improvements to her condition.
A few sprays of the drug under her tongue each day has enabled Rae to lead a normal life.
“Before, the pain was totally restricting my life and what I could do,” said the mother of two. “It was so bad that I could not bare to have someone touch me or even brush against my arm in the street.
“When the doctors suggested that cannabis might be of benefit I wasn’t sure, but I knew I did not want to keep living like that. Within a week of taking it I started noticing a big difference – I felt infinitely better.”
Canada recently became the first country in the world to approve a cannabis-based painkiller when health bosses gave Sativex the green light for use.
It was given approval for the symptomatic relief of pain in MS sufferers, and the UK’s medicine authorities are currently considering a similar application. Doctors hope the drug will then be approved for prescription for other types of chronic pain.
But Rae has been allowed to use the drug on prescription as part of an extended ‘open label’ trial since the initial three-month clinical trial finished last year.
As the wife of a doctor in a quiet rural village, she said she was wary about taking the drug, and its hardly surprising as the newspapers are filled daily with tales of woe regarding cannabis, which is enough to put some people off seeking relief from their conditions.
She said: “As someone who had never smoked or taken cannabis before, I did not want to become addicted to it.
“There is a lot of controversy surrounding cannabis because it is an illegal drug, but in comparison to other drugs it is quite tame.”
Rae was diagnosed with breast cancer five yeas ago, forcing her to give up her job as a nurse at the Western General Hospital in Glasgow.
Her husband Allan, a retired doctor, and their sons Fraser, 36, and Neil, 32, have supported her after she had a lumpectomy to remove cancerous cells from her breast.
The surgeons also removed lymph glands from under her right arm, but together with radiotherapy it caused her nerve endings to become inflamed and damaged. Each day Rae must take about 10 sprays of Sativex to ease her pain – less than a quarter of the maximum daily dose. But she admits it does have some side-effects.
She said: “It does make me sleepy and hungry – it gives me the munchies.”
Multiple sclerosis sufferers have been campaigning for years to be allowed to use cannabis to ease their symptoms.
One sufferer, Biz Ivol (now deceased), from Herston, South Ronaldsay in Orkney, sparked a furious debate when she admitted making cannabis-laced chocolates for other patients with the same condition.
She later stood trial for the possession and supply of cannabis in 1997 but was admonished by the court after admitting growing cannabis plants to relieve her pain.
At the time, the British Medical Association appealed for leniency for MS sufferers facing drug charges for using cannabis. Another case against Ivol was abandoned last year after her health began to fail and she died in September last year.
Paul Cruikshank, a friend of Ivol and a member of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, said: “Patients should be able to get hold of a medicine without fear of being prosecuted. Putting people in jail for using a medicine that alleviates their pain and symptoms is totally wrong and against their human rights.”
Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke ordered a rethink on the government’s decision to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug.
Fears that the psychotic effects of the drug could lead to long-term mental illnesses such as schizophrenia caused anti-drug campaigners to call for a reversal of the legislation.
They also fear use of the drug can lead to abuse of other harder drugs. A point which has since been disproven many times.
But Alistair Ramsay, director of Scotland Against Drugs, said distinctions had to be made between abusing drugs for recreation and using them for medical need.
He said: “It is hardly surprising that cannabis is having a proper medical effect on people who suffer pain.
“Other drugs derived from opium like morphine have been used for similar purposes. It is only when they are used improperly that the problems can occur. Like many drugs currently available on prescription, doctors will need to use caution to ensure it is not being misused.”
A recent study by researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found even cannabis-based medicines used for pain relief can cause symptoms such as paranoid delusions and severe anxiety.
But Dr Mick Serpell, the consultant who led the Sativex clinical trial at Gartnaval, believes the drug could help patients with few other choices.
He said: “We had some good results in our patients – it helped about one in three.
“These are patients who have tried everything else, so to get that kind of response can help a lot of people who have no other choices. The type of people who use it to treat pain are totally different from those who use it for recreation.”