Baroness Molly Meacher is not your stereotypical cannabis legalisation campaigner. Smartly dressed in a tailored turquoise jacket and matching necklace, the 76-year-old life peer explains to me that she’s relatively uninterested in recreational uses of the drug. However, she became convinced of its therapeutic benefits during her previous career as a social worker.
“I did social work because I was doing a lot of policy work on unemployment and poverty,” she reveals. “I thought ‘here I am, a middle class person who doesn’t know anything about the world really,’ and i wanted to understand what I was talking about.”
“I worked in mental health over many years and I would ask patients ‘why do you take cannabis?’ and they would tell me ‘because it makes me feel human’. They’d say ‘it may make my voices a bit worse, but it’s worth it because it just makes me feel so much better’. The thing that struck me was that these people were sick, but when they walked out of our hospital they would become criminals. What they were doing was a criminal act, but they were doing it for medical purposes, and I realised there was something terribly wrong.”
She entered the House of Lords in 2006 and was subsequently asked to put her name forward for a balloted debate. Unexpectedly, she was picked, so she settled on the topic of drugs policy. When the debate happened it became clear that peers from across the house supported the need for reform. They formed the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, which recommends the decriminalisation of drugs, and which Meacher has chaired since 2011.
“When you talk to senior politicians, they’ll say the barrier is middle England,” she divulges. “They’re frightened of the newspapers and they’re frightened of the population. Because of the dialogue on drugs over the decades, and the UN convention, politicians are very scared of being seen as ‘soft’. Medical cannabis is a separate issue to recreational use, though. The arguments are completely different.”
Meacher is optimistic that a new report by Professor Mike Barnes might play a pivotal role in changing UK policy on medical cannabis use. Her eyes light up with enthusiasm as she discusses the findings. “It’s the most thorough, professional and objective report on research into medical cannabis across the world,” she asserts. “It doesn’t go over the top, but it shows without any doubt that cannabis is a medicine. The evidence is strong for the alleviation of chronic pain, neuropathic pain. It may help someone who’s had an amputation, or who has cancer, multiple sclerosis or arthritis. It can also be used for insomnia, nausea, appetite loss and even anxiety. There’s good evidence that it helps those people.”
It’s true that similar evidence has already prompted many other countries to make policy changes. “Germany now has a bill going through to legalise cannabis and they estimate 800,000 people will benefit,” Meacher notes. “Italy has passed a similar bill. 11 countries in Europe now have access to medical cannabis, and 24 states of the US plus Washington DC. Canada has done the same, and most of Latin America never banned it.”
She hopes the changing international context has also altered possibilities in this country. “I think people are more aware of the evidence now than they ever have been,” she suggests. “People read about other countries that have done it without problems. They travel around and they see, and slowly, slowly it’s got through to people. The End Our Pain campaign found that 68% of people support the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use. This is the first time I have let that drug policy reform is possible, in terms of legalising cannabis for medicinal use. I really believe that it’s possible.”
The report by Professor Barnes suggests that different strains of cannabis are preferable for treating different conditions. Most important is the balance between the two main cannaboids THC and CBD. “That’s why it’s so important that it’s legalised,” explains Meacher. “Herbal cannabis that is, I’m not talking about expensive medications like Sativex. A whole range of cannabis products can be produced from high to low proportions of THC to CBD.”
“There’s a lot of stuff about cannabis causing psychosis,” she continues, “but that’s because it’s purchased from illegal drug dealers who sell very high THC varieties of cannabis. That’s dangerous for people with psychosis, but if you take away the THC and just leave CBD it actually becomes an antipsychotic. I believe that THC is useful for people with spasms and epilepsy and so on. That’s obviously a very major medical judgement, because THC isn’t good for little children and people with their brain growing, but for people with Dravet syndrome, who have hundreds of epileptic fits a day, it might be the best thing for their brain.”
Meacher is almost evangelical about the benefits of cannabis over many conventional medications used to treat the same illnesses. “Often, patients say that the side effects of the drugs they’re prescribed for these horrible, long term conditions make them feel worse than if they were taking nothing,” she contents. “For 90 percent of patients the side effects of cannabis were either nil or very mild. It’s actually far less dangerous than the alternatives.”
She also touches on a benefit that could do more to change politicians’ minds than any amount of medical evidence. “We reckon about 1 million people with chronic conditions would benefit from the legalisation of cannabis for medical use in the UK,” she explains. “These people use vast amounts of NHS time, consultant time, registrar time, GP time, nursing time, hospital beds and expensive medications. The potential of cannabis to save the NHS large sums of money is surely huge. We need to do that research and find out how much we could save.”
There’s more I want to ask, but Meacher is due to attend an event in her capacity as the chair of Dignity in Dying. She confides that her various commitments mean she sometimes barely has time to eat. Before she rushes off, I ask her if she can share a patient story that motivates her campaigning for medical cannabis. She thinks for a moment. “One case study in the report is a person who had a tumour, was in a wheelchair and had basically lost their sight. They began taking cannabis and can now walk quite a way without a wheelchair, and they have their sight back. Isn’t that incredible?”
Perhaps noticing the hesitance flash across my face, she explains further: “The other thing about this is that there’s an endocannabinoid system in our brain. This is what Professor Barnes talks about, cannabis just enhances the mechanisms we have in our brains anyway. We know the system can have an effect on tumours, on pain, on seizures and so on – so we’ve got a theoretical basis for cannabis being this effective as well as the survey trials.”
Her passion is infectious, but after we go our separate ways I consider her arguments in a more critical manner and find I still struggle to identify much to disagree with.
Abi Wilkinson is a freelance journalists who has written for The Guardian, The Telegraph, Total Politics and The Daily Mirror. Tweets @AbiWilks