Where are all the skunks?
By Deej Sullivan
From the 4th to the 7th of March 2015 a conference took place in Prague that was the first of its kind in the Czech Republic. Organised to coincide roughly with the passing of a new Bill legalising the medical use of cannabis in the country; the conference brought together experts on cannabis science, medicine and policy from around the word to take part in four days of discussions, debates and presentations.
Among the luminaries in attendance were –
Raphael Mechoulam, organic chemist and rector emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Mechoulam is best known for his work (together with Y. Gaoni) in the isolation, structure elucidation and total synthesis of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Dr. Svatopluk Němeček, Minister of Health of the Czech Republic,
Pavel Bém and Prof. Michel Kazatchkine from the Global Commission on Drug Policy,
Jindřich Vobořil MA MHA, the Czech National Drug Coordinator,
Steph Sherer, founder of Americans for Safe Access,
And many more.
The number of topics discussed over the course of the conference was vast and the number of notes I took even more so, so I will not be providing a complete run-down of everything that was discussed – that would be boring for everyone including me.
Instead I will be writing about some of the major things that I have taken away from the conference as a whole, which I think are among the most important for those of us unlucky enough to be in the UK.
Firstly, the timing of the conference with regards to the UK was quite beautiful in its irony. There I was in Prague, listening to (and talking to in some cases) the finest experts on the endo-cannabinoid system and cannabis in the entire world – men and women who have dedicated their lives to finding out what cannabis is, what it does, and why; and who have found some truly remarkable things – whilst less than a thousand miles away on the backwards facing prison island I call home Channel 4 was busy spewing out its latest pseudo-scientific nonsense about ‘skunk’, whatever that is.
And that’s the thing – not once in the whole 4 day conference did I hear anyone even mention the word skunk. Unless of course they were talking to me and we were laughing at the absurdity of it.
One of the most striking examples of this disparity between the UK and the rest of the world came in the form of Philippe Lucas, Vice President of patient research and services for Tilray: a Canadian medical cannabis company the likes of which most Europeans, let alone Brits, would barely be able to believe existed if the evidence wasn’t being shoved in their faces.
Mr Lucas’ talk focused on medical cannabis policy in Canada, and included a breakdown of a Tilray facility – how they choose a location, how the facility is built, how they grow their plants and how they conduct the scientific research needed to expand our knowledge of cannabis as a medicine.
Part of this research was the ‘Cannabis Access for Medical Purposes Survey’ (CAMPS) – a 414 question cross-sectional survey made available to Canadian medical cannabis patients in 2011 and 2012. The study was the largest polling of Canadian medical cannabis patients ever conducted and its findings were fascinating; however the reason I bring it up is for one finding in particular – that across Canada they are seeing a greater need and quest for higher and higher levels of THC in their medicines. Not in every case, of course, but it is something which is noticeable.
As (I think) the only British citizen in attendance, my response to this piece of information was to flinch. I have become so used to media, politicians, and even some British scientists using high THC levels as a stick to beat the case for medical access with that I was expecting something negative. But it didn’t materialise. In fact, to be honest, nothing did. It was a throwaway comment which barely registered with most in the audience, whereas for me it was a big deal.
I caught up with Philipe after his talk and had a brief chat about THC, ‘skunk’, and the British attitude to medical cannabis. Well I say chat – in reality it was a laugh. At the mention of skunk he, like everyone else outside of the UK, cracked a smile, and we joked about what the Daily Mail’s reaction will be when concentrates start becoming more popular here.
He wasn’t the only one – I also spoke with Arno Hazekamp from Bedrocan BV about ‘skunk’ and in particular about Channel 4’s recent Drugs Live program. He hadn’t heard about the show but when I told him what they had done to poor old Jon Snow he too laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Of course the main fear that has been peddled in the UK about skunk is its ability to ‘cause’ psychosis and schizophrenia. Well let me tell you – I was at a conference, listening to speeches from the finest experts on the subject from around the world, and the only mentions of schizophrenia came from scientists and researchers explaining the huge promise their work was showing in using cannabinoids and the endo-cannabinoid system to treat such disorders.
To really drive home this point, the main talk on this subject came from Dr Vincenzo Micale with his presentation: The endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) as a potential therapeutic target in schizophrenia: preclinical and clinical evidence. I won’t explain everything that was said but I can tell you that the evidence presented was more than compelling, and there was no mention of cannabis ‘causing’ anything.
The UK then is perhaps even further behind the rest of the world than I had imagined, which is worrying to be honest. At a time when it seems like the issue of cannabis legalisation and in particular medical cannabis use seems to be in the public eye like never before it is concerning that there seems to be a very basic lack of understanding from British scientists and physicians of how the endo-cannabinoid system works and what it does, let alone how cannabis can help it do its job.
There were no British scientists giving talks, no other British attendees as far as I could tell and very little mention of British research, with the notable exception of a brief mention that Raphael Mechoulam himself has worked with researchers in Aberdeen and London. I do genuinely worry that with this lack of scientific understanding comes the possibility that, whilst we may get changes to the law, they may not be grounded in science and as such may not be the changes we want.
The only answer as far as I can tell is education, and this conference did a great job of that. The other way of educating is of course activism. It may be a dirty word in certain circles as I have found out recently but if we are all active in a small way we can help educate and make a real difference.
Follow Deej on Twitter @sullivandeej or via his website, or facebook.