NORML UK Building bridges with the Terence Higgins Trust to support PLHIV

Last year, Tina Mendes, Medical Campaign Team Director for NORML UK, received an email from a married couple, who were recently busted by the police for growing cannabis. One of the couple has HIV, and the events which unfolded, prompted NORML UK  into approaching The Terence Higgins Trust to arrange a meeting to discuss advocacy for people living with HIV (PLHIV), who use cannabis as medicine. During the process of supporting this couple, Tina also liaised with Mat Southwell, from Respect  (Respect is an organisation promoting health & defending human rights of people who use drugs in the UK). 

Mat Southwell, from Respect  (Respect is an organisation promoting health & defending human rights of people who use drugs in the UK.

Mat Southwell

In March 2013 an informal meeting was held between members of the Terence Higgins Trust at their head office in London and Tina Mendes, Andy Bishop (Organisations Outreach Director NORML UK) and Mat Southwell. The meeting was a resounding success, with some advocacy points and a working partnership established with THT, so that we can work together supporting PLHIV who use cannabis as medicine.

Here is the story so far.

The married couple got into problems when a one-off attempt to grow plants for medicinal use came to the attention of the police. Given the number of plants being grown, there was a real risk that the couple could face some serious legal consequences if the judgement in this case went against them.

The couple initially reached out to a local HIV service but did not receive a helpful response. Luckily they then found their way to NORML UK, who were able to find a specialist lawyer for the couple  and also to provide technical and emotional support as the case progressed. Positively this advocacy and the couple’s own determination resulted in the case being treated sympathetically and a non-custodial sentence was given.

This case highlighted the wider issue of the challenges faced by people living with HIV (PLHIV) who may find the use of cannabis helpful in managing the side effects of the potent drugs they take to manage their HIV infection or in helping to manage pain, improve appetite or reduce nausea. In countries where medicinal cannabis is legal, PLHIV are starting to explore and talk about the benefits of cannabis use. However, PLHIV living in the UK and looking for ways to access the healing properties of medicinal cannabis have to navigate a legal minefield.

This led NORML UK  medical campaign team, to consider an advocacy approach to ensure that organisations for PLHIV are able to provide non-judgmental information on the medicinal use of cannabis and also to ensure PLHIV have access to legal advice and where needed support.

NORML UK decided to approach the UK’s largest HIV organisation, the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT). An advocacy meeting was established between Tina Mendes and Andy Bishop from NORML UK Medicinal Cannabis Team and Lisa Powers and Blake Smith from THT. A helpful discussion took place about the evidence for the benefits of medicinal cannabis use and opportunities for ensuring that PLHIV with issues or concerns around medicinal cannabis use can access NORML UK’s services.

Terrence Higgins TrustTHT were particularly interested in further information regarding the Sentencing Guidelines, which specifically refer to personal cultivation of cannabis that were introduced in February 2012 and NORML UK’s proposed pathway to specialist legal assistance for PLHIV who use cannabis as medicine, which the Medical Campaign Team are currently working on.

Amongst the other topics also discussed during the meeting was the need to provide up to date information to THT on recent developments regarding medical cannabis and its potential benefits for PLHIV. The NORML UK Oraganisations Outreach and Reasearch Teams having been allotted this task as an ongoing remit.

Towards the close of the meeting NORML UK representatives asked if medicinal cannabis and its benefits to PLHIV could be discussed on a broader platform, such as with the British HIV Association and THT have kindly agreed to look into this on our behalf.

NORML UK would like to thank Mat Southwell from Respect (hard drug user group) for his advice during this advocacy engagement and we would also like to thank Lisa Power and Blake Smith for their constructive engagement


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