Dr. Warren Bell on the cannabis conundrum

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

• The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs
Portrait of columnist Alan Cassels
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.

AC: Huh?

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.

3 thoughts on “Dr. Warren Bell on the cannabis conundrum”

  1. As we look back on the 20th Century we can see unprecedented global wars, totalitarian horror states, moral collapse, penchant for violence in all its forms, yet through all of what we have witnessed and experienced, we have survived. We are still on our feet, maybe a touch dazed yet amazingly resilient. We have learned to approach the millennium with a more self-critical perspective. We acknowledge with humiliation how much we have yet to learn about drug reform and the respect that will allow us to protect and restore our educational institutes as they continue their reflections on drug education. The coming together in a mutual understanding between education and government is significant. The reflective practice approach to preparing teachers for drug education offers an alternative to dogmatic instructional methods of prevention that seem more indoctrinatory than educational.

    The heart of any organization is human. As simple people with simple dreams we can make positive changes in our lives by thinking about our connection as a living web, trusting our common sense, reducing materialism and consumption, and helping protect local communities. We can help the world by going into it. Through travel and a continual goal to fortify our relationship with our ancestral roots we can remember that humans are literally made up of air, water, soil and sunlight. If these elements are not available to us, we die. As diversified as our needs are, we are simple people with basic fundamental needs.

    We have amidst us a vast amount of human culture. I think we have substantial grounds for believing the coming century will be an improvement on its predecessor, which will bring, not only material betterment of many kinds, but moral and social progress as well. One of the functions of a legalized, regulated and taxed approach for cannabis is a mutual security system, a place where we can define and guarantee ideas, compassion and assistance when needed within a regulatory framework. ‘Drug education has been a part of the North American schooling since the 19 century. However, teacher education for drug education is complicated.
    A system that has been complicated by the contested aims of drug education, the inherently contentious nature of the subject, and the issues around the construction of knowledge about drugs.’ Kenneth Tupper UBC ‘Teaching Teachers to Just Say Know’

    Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the 20th Century was not the events that did occur, but the events that failed to occur. As the post legalization era agenda unfolds, we will witness a greater need, a more political and worldly connection which will help create a civilization built upon an educational platform comprised of energy, dynamism and a new sense of purpose. Doing little to prepare teachers for drug education is counterproductive to novice teachers and to their students.

    Is it fair to judge someone before you meet them? As the legalization, regulation and taxation dialogue continues, we will begin to write books, draw pictures, make photographs and begin to exchange our experiences within this post legalization era. When our Grandfathers and Grandmothers told us, that no one, no matter how hard they try can remember all of the stories and legends of a people. Well, let’s try! We have to accustom ourselves to taking cultural, intellectual and visual leads from each other. Of great important is the moral contribution of sane and sensible drug policy in the coming years. Social justice issues will loom heavily upon us in the next federal election in 2015. University teacher education programs will have to include drug education components to ensure teacher educators are well-versed in the content knowledge of drug issues. Tupper’s paper concludes that pre-service teachers are encouraged to engage in reflective practice in preparing for and delivering lessons about drugs. And to be consistent with the educational aims of fostering critical thinking, teachers need to be prepared to engage in open, honest dialogue about drugs and drug use that does not rely on scare tactics.

    Efforts are being made within higher education programs in some colleges and universities. Much of the information transformation will be syncretistic and will absorb elements of our creeds, practices and ancestral roots. Our desire to end the madness created by prohibition stirs through each and every one of us. We all know that some one somewhere has been deeply affected by the war on drugs. Through a deeper understanding on the world stage, what will surface will be a clarity surrounding cannabis legalization. This clarity will offer a diversity revealing our differences and our similarities profoundly interwoven from a worldly perspective. This tapestry will function as a global reference towards a new visible language addressing the serious issues of this war on people and to prepare the world’s citizens as we learn to speak more clearly through many eyes viewed from differing perspectives and different places expressing what legalization of cannabis really means to society as a whole.

    Education is key to this development. “The attempt to indoctrinate youth in vain hope of achieving a drug-free country or world is a questionable agenda.” It is already a fact that some countries and/states are becoming prosperous and economically advanced within a cannabis legalization framework, in some areas more than others. History shows that such prosperity invariably produces new ideas in time, within these new innovative ideas both in public and private places will be a more creative potential emanating from a single purpose, one based not on ideology, coercion and punishment, but on ideas, compassion and harm reduction.

    I agree with Tupper that what is needed is a profound educational change. Drug education needs to acknowledge that psychoactive substances are an established part of human cultural environments. Personally I see a need to create images of a people, men and woman and in some cases children, who benefit medicinally from cannabis within a purposeful diversification. We need to understand more thoroughly that drugs can pose risks and benefits depending on who uses them, when and where and for what purpose. It has taken 70 years to reach the point where we are now. We are beginning to count the costs of prohibition and the toll it has taken on the well being of families and individuals. The rise and ubiquity of corruption and organized crime, the cult of violence and the blatant contempt shown by some governments to perpetuate the war on drugs has taken it’s toll on society. Thankfully, through continued persistence and perseverance the times are changing, slowly. The tipping point has been revealed and the sanctity of people’s lives will be restored through knowledge and evidence based drug policies.

    There is still much work to be done. We witness government’s attempting to destroy the basic fundamental principles of reality based science. We must restore and be enriched by the rediscovery of a passionate society, a just society. A society that can narrow the widening gap that has developed between government’s and the people they are suppose to serve.
    The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century still shows destructive and defective ideological politics. So acutely aware of these societal diseases, we still face the challenge to develop an unexpected revival of a civilized life in need of change. We can allow ourselves to become instruments or channels within this web of significance so that we may inspire others. Those of us who aspire to be politically motivated in drug policy and drug reform understand what I am talking about here. We can allow ourselves to be used, to be servants of our nation, to serve our country, our community and to respect ourselves as we face the complexities of a post legalization era. We won’t stop until we see the end of prohibition.

    We all want to move from one fresh experience to another and this newness is helping to define a new regionalism, that which has educational relevance will be essential in building a new dialogue in drug education. The myths, legends and history reflected in our decision to take such broad steps forward will be the catalyst towards this persistence of discovery. Bad governance reminds people of their fears, good governance reminds people of what they can accomplish, together.

  2. What a wonderful perspective & attitude expressed with humour, natural grace, wisdom & wit. O the joys of common sense, generosity of heart & the innocent wonder of an unencumbered mind! Cannabis works. I am all for anything that really works. What is there to fear? It is worth repeating Dr. Bell’s last few words:

    “… health and happiness do not actually come from chemicals… 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.”

    That doesn’t leave out anything, so it certainly includes the right use of cannabis as a healing agent. What a blessing! Thanks for this article. db



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