Just five years ago, Andy Lowe thought he had lost it all. Out of work after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and living alone, he felt as if he was “on death’s door”.
“I was going downhill rapidly and often eating one meal a day,” he said. “I was so ill that I didn’t want to eat, the pain was horrendous. I’d set myself one goal a day, like having breakfast or a shower, but even that was tough”.
The 57-year-old former car mechanic never expected that cannabis would turn his life around. Puffing on cannabis oil through his vapouriser, he tells me that he is “finally enjoying being alive again”.
“I’ve gone from lying in my armchair to being fully functional. My appetite is back to normal, and I’m finally able to get a good night’s sleep. The pain and the spasms have completely subsided. I buzz about in my wheelchair and go up to the shops… I’m really happy.”
Mr Lowe, from Dagenham, is one of thousands of people to have chosen to obtain medicinal cannabis privately after struggling to get a prescription through the NHS. There are just three conditions accepted by the NHS for cannabis prescriptions: muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, nausea caused by cancer-related treatment and severe epilepsy. Only 17,000 people are currently being treated with medicinal cannabis in the UK, despite many more suffering from conditions that could benefit from treatment.
Mamedica, the firm Mr Lowe uses, provides access to a huge range of different cannabis strains for those who qualify for treatment.
The service can be accessed by anyone over the age of 18 that meets certain health criteria, but users must have had at least two other licensed medications or therapies for their condition prior to application. After referral, prospective users are assessed by a medical professional and then receive a cannabis treatment package delivered to their door. All patients attend regular meetings to monitor and assess their progress.
Mr Lowe’s favourite strains include ‘EM1’ and ‘Pink Kush’, which has a high level of THC and helps to ease pain before he goes to sleep. Each is added to a dosing capsule which he fills up at various points in the day to put in his vapouriser.
“If I take it in the morning it helps settles my legs down, and I can also go out in public. It’s very discreet and it doesn’t smell, I’m not disturbing anyone.”
Around one in ten people with MS who have pain or muscle spasticity might benefit from cannabis treatment, according to the MS Society. A 2017 review conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) also found that those who took cannabis orally said it helped with their spasticity.
Cannabis remains a dirty word in the House of Commons. Home Secretary Suella Braverman last month threatened to put it on par with heroin and crack cocaine by making it a Class A drug, while Sir Keir Starmer has shown no signs of liberalising Labour’s stance despite London Mayor Sadiq Khan commissioning a review of the potential benefits of decriminalisation.
Outside of Westminster, the country appears to be slowly growing more open-minded – a poll released in 2018 found that 59 per cent of Britons supported the legalisation of cannabis.
Medicinal cannabis has been legal in the UK for four years but treatment options can be difficult to find. There are just three conditions accepted by the NHS for cannabis prescriptions: muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, nausea caused by cancer-related treatment and severe epilepsy. Only 17,000 people are currently being treated with medicinal cannabis in the UK, despite many more suffering from conditions that could benefit from treatment.
Jon Robson, the CEO of Mamedica, tells the Standard that he has never had a prescription sent to his pharmacy from an NHS doctor.
“If we were to receive a request we would happily provide it, we would welcome that day… Unfortunately there is still a stigma surrounding cannabis. But as patient numbers grow, the price reduces and more people like Mr Lowe start to tell their story, this might start to fade and we can finally start to have a mainstream conversation.”
Treatment comes at a price. Mr Lowe pays around £400 every ten weeks for the set of oils but says it is completely worth it. “It sounds like a lot of money but it lasts a while,” he says.
However like many Britons, he is struggling with the cost of living crisis since losing his job due to his MS.
“I have no income so I am struggling with money, and I don’t get much money from my pension. I’ve had to turn my boiler and heating off during the daytime. It only goes on in the evening when I need a quick shower and I want to warm the place up.”
Mr Robson says there is “frustration” among many Britons that they have to pay to access medicinal cannabis.
“People do believe that this type of medication should be available on the NHS. Compare it to opioids for pain, we had 50 million prescriptions on the NHS last year costing hundreds of millions of pounds.”
He says legalisation is “inevitable” as public demand will steadily increase over the next few years. Mamedica predict that the number of UK medical cannabis users could reach 337,000 by 2024.
“If Europe start to legislate for legalisation and adult recreational sales begin, I believe that we will be pulled along as we will see that it’s clearly a lucrative business and there will be a lot of demand.”
For Mr Lowe, the transformative effect of the drug on his life has been undeniable. He hopes that his story will start a conversation about how it many people it could potentially help.
“I’m not doing this to get stoned – I need it for the pain. Everyone tells me they have seen a massive change in me.”