|LAST week The Evening Telegraph reported on concerns that cannabis use can be the gateway to addiction to hard drugs. But for those who use cannabis for medicinal purposes, there is another side to the story.|
Rachel Wareing spoke to a woman who uses pot to help her cope with the intense pain of her illness.
Helen and Tom live a respectable sort of life. They've never been in trouble with the police and are bringing up their three children to be the sort of polite, considerate individuals they themselves try to be.
But this ordinary Peterborough couple have a secret – every day they break the law.
Both Helen and Tom smoke cannabis for medical reasons, and have recently started to grow their own supply.
Helen (26) has a rare condition which has attacked her nervous system and causes her intense, disabling pain. Doctors suspect she may also be suffering from multiple sclerosis.
She takes a daily cocktail of 27 prescription pills to counteract the pain and relieve the depression which has dogged her since the illness started to take over her life.
But the prescribed medicine causes its own problems. It makes her feel sleepy and irritable, gives her terrible nightmares and hallucinations and upsets her stomach.
Cannabis, she says, has transformed her life.
Puffing on a joint dissolves her pain within minutes and enables her to lead something which resembles an ordinary life, she said.
"I'm on so many tablets that make me feel ill. But if I smoke a joint I don't need to take any of them.
"I'm able to play with my children and do simple things such as making dinner or a cup of tea, or brushing my hair.
"I get so excited about being able to brush my hair, I'm like a child. It sounds ridiculous, but it's a little thing such as that which means so much to me."
It was Tom who introduced her to cannabis, soon after they met just over a year ago.
Tom (25) has been a regular pot smoker since the age of 13, and views his own use of the drug as medicinal.
He said: "I had a difficult childhood, which caused me emotional and physical problems.
"At the age of 13 I found myself sitting on the edge of a railway bridge, thinking about killing myself. A friend offered me a joint and I really found it has helped to lift my mood. I have smoked it regularly ever since. I don't do it to get high, I do it to feel normal."
Tom, who is Helen's full-time carer and guardian to her three children, gently broached the idea of seeing whether cannabis could help her condition.
She had tried it before, but not since her illness had deteriorated.
Although she was initially cautious, when she did give it a go she was completely won over.
"It's been a revelation for her," said Tom. "When she's had a joint, she's like a different person.
"Her depression lifts and she can play with the children, do normal mum things with them."
When Helen had a windfall from an insurance policy pay-out, she asked Tom to investigate the possibility of buying some equipment so they could grow their own plants, something which had been his lifelong dream.
Being forced to be in contact with drug dealers has always been the worst part of being a cannabis user for Tom.
He said: "I've been forced into some really unpleasant situations – having to go and meet dodgy characters in laybys, being threatened with a knife, having people come to my house making threats after a deal has fallen through.
"It's not a scene I have ever wanted to be associated with at all. I have no interest in getting off my face and I don't want to try any other drugs."
Tom believes there are also health benefits to growing his own supply.
He said: "Cannabis is grown commercially by criminals who care only about making money. They don't care what nasty chemicals they add to make the plants grow faster, which is a real worry. You don't know what horrible chemicals you're smoking.
"At least if you grow your own you can control what goes into it."
During his investigations, he discovered that there are certain strains of cannabis which medicinal users have found more helpful than others, and he was able to get hold of some seeds.
He also found out about a circle of about a dozen people in Peterborough who grow their own cannabis for medicinal purposes and share their crops within the group, but he believes they could be just the tip of the iceberg and there may be hundreds of people in a similar predicament in the city.
The couple now have their own small collection of organic plants growing under lamps in a special tent in their bedroom, which uses about the same amount of power as a fridge freezer.
The growing process has been hit and miss so far, said Tom, as he tries to get to grips with horticulture for the first time in his life.
He said: "It's really hard because you can't just go and borrow a library book to show you how to do it.
"It's all been trial and error. The difficulty is I have to have quite a few little seedlings on the go because some will inevitably fail. But if I did get raided by the police, they will count all those little plants separately and they might try to argue I'm growing enough to sell on, which couldn't be further from the truth."
The couple, who insist they never smoke cannabis in front of the children, hope to start growing more plants in the loft, ensuring they have a continuous supply.
The implications of getting caught is a constant worry and even a knock on the door can spark panic.
Tom added: "I could get 14 years inside for this. If I was sent to prison, both Helen and the kids would have to go into care.
"The family would be split up – and who would that help?
"The situation seems so unfair. We've found something natural, which grows in the ground, which can totally transform Helen's quality of life. I've thought about making some posters with a picture of her pills next to a picture of a joint with the question: 'which would you rather take?' and putting them up around the city in the night.
"I just want people to understand what it's like for us."
Medical opinion split on drug
OPINIONS differ on the benefits and pitfalls of medicinal cannabis use.
A spokesman for the British Medical Association told The Evening Telegraph: "In its 1997 report on the Therapeutic Uses of Cannabis, the British Medical Association recommended that the law be changed to allow research leading to the prescription of cannabinoids to patients with medical conditions in which the benefits are proven."
That research is ongoing.
In March 2005, the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to examine new evidence on the harmfulness of cannabis, and to consider whether this changed their assessment of cannabis as a class C drug. They produced a report and among the findings were the following points:
>> Cannabis can worsen mental health problems (including schizophrenia) and may even trigger them in some cases.
n Smoking cannabis increases your chance of getting lung diseases (such as chronic bronchitis) and may also cause lung cancer.
>> Some people can get hooked on cannabis and they experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop.
However, the conclusion was reached that the drug should remain a class C drug, because it is not considered as harmful as class B drugs such as speed.
'NHS could save millions with pot'
HELEN has kept a diary recording her highs and lows since March 2006, which she has shared with The Evening Telegraph. Here are some extracts:
Got up with a headache, back ache and pain in legs and arms. Really starting to struggle even with getting dressed now.
Spend a lot of the day crying, feel a lot older than I am!
Wednesday evening – have a joint and start to feel better in minutes.
It's a special assembly at my son's school and I don't feel that I can walk down there. Consumed by pain.
Had a cup of tea and a joint, pain started to go and I started to feel more positive. Even made it to the school and the assembly was lovely. I'm a very proud mum and so pleased I could make it today.
Was up until 3am with pain again. Keep crying, wondering when it will end.
Had a weak joint which was taken off the plant early by Tom to see what the quality was like. It was only one joint, but it sorted me out and now I can't wait for the rest to be ready.
The relief I got from just that one weak joint really made me see the benefits of cannabis. If I could give just one joint to everybody who suffers from pain, then they would see how much it helps and then maybe the Government would have to do something about it.
After the doctor looked at my MRI pictures he said I need a big operation.
I will be cut wide open and will have to be in a high dependency unit for 24 hours, then a normal ward for a week.
I won't be able to have cannabis for another seven to eight weeks which is hard because it would be interesting to see how it works after an operation compared to what they give me.
The doctors have given me more tablets and increased my dosage of one of the tablets I take. The chemist doesn't stock them because they're too expensive, so they ordered them and Tom went to pick them up this afternoon.
The chemist told him they are costing £1,255! This is just for one of the tablets I have to take. I take eight different things, so I dread to think how much they cost when they're all put together. If they legalised cannabis, it could save the NHS millions!
Feeling very low. I know there are people who have suffered more than me and I know how lucky I am to have a great man and three great kids but I really don't know how much more of this I can take.
I'm just waiting for the kids to come home from school. Normally I love helping them with their homework but I feel so shaky and sick from my medication it's getting harder to do that.
Tom stopped off to see his mate earlier and was given enough cannabis for me to have one joint. Had it before tea and it was heaven! For the first time in ages I felt positive and could look to the future. I managed to eat a good amount of dinner and could cut my own food up, which I haven't been able to do in ages.
The best thing was when I was playing with my four-year-old and he said: "Mummy you're funny." I love being able to play with them.
Supply still illegal
Despite the downgrading of cannabis to class C, possession, production and supply of cannabis is still illegal.
>> The maximum penalty for supply, dealing, production and trafficking is 14 years imprisonment. This has increased from five years for all class C substances, including GHB and Valium.
>> The maximum penalty for possession has been reduced from five years to two years imprisonment.
>> It is unlikely that adults caught in possession of cannabis will be arrested. Most offences of possession result in a warning and confiscation of the drug.
But some instances may lead to arrest and possible caution or prosecution, including repeat offending, smoking in a public place, instances where public order is threatened and possession of cannabis in the vicinity of premises used by children.