DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels
• The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs
Dr. Warren Bell is a physician in Salmon Arm, BC and one of the co-founders of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. He has never seen a pharmaceutical sales rep in nearly 40 years of practising medicine and has a depth of knowledge of complementary and alternative medicine that is rare in Canadian physicians these days.
Alan Cassels: You are someone who has looked very closely both at the medical aspects of cannabis as well as its political aspects. I am going to quote back to you something you told me. You said, “The current regulatory system presents us with an unsolvable problem?” In relation to cannabis, what do you mean?
Warren Bell: First, cannabis works. It’s a plant that produces biologically active components with clear-cut and obvious therapeutic value, ranging from anti-emetic (anti-nausea), anti-cancer and pain-relieving properties through to outstanding food values as well as, of course, its profound utility, known for millennia, as a source of fibre for cloth, cordage and paper.
Second, while it contains a range of compounds, it can be selectively bred with considerable ease to produce one or more of these compounds almost exclusively. So the actual plant itself can easily be rendered into a focused therapeutic agent. It can also be taken into the body in various ways – inhaled or ingested or even transdermally (through the skin).
Third, the toxicity of cannabis is radically less than with most other analgesics and, in fact, most other drugs that have psychotropic effects, meaning they affect mind or mood. This is because A) it does not affect the brainstem and is thus incapable of lethal effects even in a massive overdose; and B) while containing the same array of carcinogens as tobacco smoke, the inhaled smoke from cannabis also contains the aforementioned anti-cancer agents, resulting in cancer rates in regular users that tend to be no higher than background levels.
AC: At the same time, you’ve got regulators who want to get in on the cannabis deal. They too probably see it can be very beneficial, but using it or dealing it is illegal. Where does this leave regulators?
WB: Given the kind of ideologically driven and fundamentalist federal government we are now gifted with in Canada, cannabis presents an inscrutable psychological conundrum.
WB: Because of its wide use as a recreational drug and the modest association of high-THC cannabis with drug addiction, Stephen Harper is inclined to reject or even criminalize its use. In addition, governments throughout the western world are so rabidly pro-corporate that something lying outside the grasp of the “corporation,” i.e. a plant that can be grown by anyone anywhere and that actually works, enrages them and makes them gnash their teeth in frustration.
AC: What is happening to keep the money from cannabis in the right hands?
WB: New regulations purported to streamline its use for medical purposes in Canada are actually going to sharply increase costs by restricting production solely to business operations; the regulations will actually criminalize individual users growing their own plants. In addition, all recreational use will also still be criminalized. In the US, in the characteristically heterogenous way of our neighbours to the south, some states have gone whole-hog and legalized it in every way, right next to others that maintain rigid and heavy-handed prosecution and criminalization.
AC: So you think its best to decriminalize it, right?
WB: All the evidence – that is to say all the credible evidence – around making cannabis widely accessible in plant form indicates this will save governments a vast amount of money, time and enforcement energy. And it won’t result in an increased level of addiction or even an increase in use. In fact, taking Portugal as an example, the opposite is likely to take place. It makes good economic – as well as social – sense to de-criminalize and eventually legalize cannabis.
AC: Let’s talk of its medical uses.
WB: It actually makes good medical sense to use it as a direct plant extract because of the ease with which plants can be bred to produce specific therapeutic compounds, either terpinoids or cannabinoids. It is consequently radically inexpensive.
AC: I bet pharma wouldn’t like a stinky, little inexpensive-to-grow and highly effective plant muscling in on its territory.
WB: Exactly. The governments of most “developed” countries have sold out so much to a corporate agenda that the idea of a whole sector such as “health” being able to access therapeutic agents that really really work, and are really really safe is a huge blow to this dominant orientation. Big Pharma is entirely constructed on the basis of intellectual property rights law and friends in high places. Cannabis the plant – which can’t be patented – circumvents this entire massive industrial/regulatory edifice.
History is replete with conflicts engendered by people with far more power and wealth than brains. Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Chem, Big Nuclear, Big Retail, Big Food – these are all sectors which, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have acquired all of these attributes. Cannabis, in its small but pervasive way, challenges the foundation on which every one of these sectors rests. As a consequence, there are powerful forces in play doing their best to obstruct relatively unfettered access to cannabis.
AC: I remember walking down a road on the edge of town in Katmandu, Nepal and seeing marijuana growing in the ditches like a weed. Some societies aren’t so obsessed with regulating the use of that plant.
WB: And did I mention the plant grows readily in marginal soil? The rather subtle irony in all this is that cannabis is simply a plant. It’s not a messianic instrument. Nor is it a panacea. Nor is it the anti-Christ. It’s just a plant that happens to have a lot of very useful therapeutic and other qualities; it grows readily indoors and out and like the wily coyote resists extirpation in the human community in unique and creative ways. But it is also a symbol and a metaphor.
AC: A symbol and metaphor of what? Do we have something to be hopeful about?
WB: I predict that cannabis will one day be legalized and sold under controlled conditions throughout the North American continent and probably elsewhere as well. This will happen not because it’s the answer to the world’s problems, but because it is a symbol of a new way of doing things. It represents inclusiveness, a revulsion against corporate control and an acceptance that we all have to take responsibility for what we do in our own lives as long as it does not adversely affect others. And an honest recognition of the fact that there are many other things in our world that are significantly dumber and more dangerous than the use of cannabis.
When this liberalization of access happens, it will coincide with a growing awareness that health and happiness do not actually come from chemicals, whether prescribed or bought directly, whether therapeutic or recreational. They come from a peaceful mind in a healthy body, generated by far more benign practices, such as meditation, good food, prayer, regular and vigorous physical activity and sincere efforts to live a good life and serve others and to give and receive love.
Now, when that happens it will be awful. I and my health professional colleagues won’t have anything to do!
Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher in Victoria, BC. Dr. Warren Bell is a general practitioner in Salmon Arm, BC and a vocal and vigorous defender of rationality and humanity.www.alancassels.com
Publisher’s note: www.mmarcoalitionagainstrepeal.com has been formed to protect patients’ constitutional rights to reasonable access. The group goes to court to file an injunction March 18th in Vancouver. A rally will be held that day at the courthouse.