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Cannabis in medicine: Why such stigma?

Cannabis in medicine: Why such stigma?

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Cannabis use in medicine remains controversial. Why?

Cannabis consumption, in many areas of the world, used to be an every day and socially acceptable part of life.

Governmental, medical, ethical and personal views clashed in the 19th and early-20th centuries as much as they do today concerning the Cannabis satvia plant. Cannabis markets existed before British colonialism appeared, and even then, taxation was introduced as a means to 'discourage' intake (in the same manner as tobacco today) rather than attempting to stamp out the trade -- before a global campaign banned the use and exportation of cannabis in many countries.

There are, however, fairly recent signs of cannabis use re-entering the medical sphere. Scientific American reports that Savitex, a drug that uses cannabinoids, is taken orally and is being put through its paces before consideration as a future treatment for cancer patients.

Savitex is a pump which is designed to be sprayed under the mouth or in the inside of the cheek. The drug in development contains THC -- the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis -- and CBD (cannabidiol). GW Pharmaceuticals controls the drug testing, and plans to gain the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration once trials are completed; possibly by 2014. The drug is already used to give relief to patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and its subsequent neuropathic pain, and is already approved in the UK, Spain, Canada and New Zealand. The producers of Savitex hope to launch in additional countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden in 2012.

Do users experience a 'high' in the same way as recreational use? The clinical trials suggest not:

One of the cannabinoids in Sativex is THC whereas the other principal cannabinoid is CBD, a non-psychoactive molecule. Evidence suggests that CBD may modulate many of the unwanted effects of THC.

The spray can be adjusted to stop THC from entering the bloodstream too rapidly -- removing the 'high' and allowing pain relief. However, this may indicate that in fact yes, if one were to 'abuse' the spray, a high could be achieved.  According to the Scientific American, it has "little potential for abuse", the reasoning being that the drug is delivered orally (and smoking is not?), it would take too long, and the 'ritual' element is removed from intake.

Sure it does, but that may not actually matter. The media uprising every time hemp is mentioned is simply down to the attached stigma of a 'stoner' rather than its beneficial, medical properties.

Most substances we come in to contact with contain the possibility of abuse. In the West, drinking coffee and tea, eating chocolate or smoking tobacco -- which translate to the consumption of their respective plant alkaloids caffeine, theine, theobromine and nicotine -- is completely acceptable, and even more than this, is an ingrained element of our culture. Alcohol is also on the list of acceptable, social drugs, which can be open to insensible intake.

Yet, we 'abuse' these widely. Caffeine overdoses, sugary foods that cause obesity, and alcohol which can lead to physical and mental problems, or cause irrational or violent behavior. All of these are legal and have become part of our economic structure -- and yet, each 'legal drug' contains properties that prompt psychological changes and may be addictive.

Not only this, but the abuse of such legal substances causes pressure on our medical system: from obesity operations, accidents or poisoning through alcohol, and even irregular heartbeats by overdosing on caffeine-laden drinks.

Psychoactive substances are part of cultural ritual -- and the West is no different. Where you may associate hemp intake with shamans or religious rites, people in the West instead smoke it in coffee shops, in parks, or in their parent's basement. When we consider substances that contain plant extracts, however, we drink our coffee in the morning, snack on chocolate at lunch, and have our late-night cigarettes without a twinge of guilt.

The only reason cannabis isn't on the 'everyday' list for most is the illegal and social stigma. If we consume so many substances a day that -- by the classification of 'drug' -- change chemical properties in the brain, why such a furor when hemp is mentioned? Why the outcry against use of cannabis in medicine, mainly because of the fact it could be abused recreationally?

Should we also ban the use of alcohol in operating theaters because your local shop is offering cider at discount rates which teenagers could abuse?

Anti-psychotic drugs are released for medical use even though there are concerns for its side effects, and in some cases, patients are even forced to accept such medication. Yet,  a battle must be fought for the same patient to have access to a pain-relieving extract which has far less serious side effects, and whose antique nature is well known to the international medical community in both benefits and consequences.

Why such stigma?

Forget concerns of recreational abuse -- cannabis has pain relieving properties that are useful to the medical community. Why is it that we have to fight against the stigma of taking cannabis, but allow so many people to be over-medicated, much to the delight of many a pharmaceutical company?

As the New York Times reported last year, 71 percent of Medicaid residents in Florida nursing homes received psychoactive drugs, such as antidepressants or anti-psychotic, even though most residents were not on such medications before they entered the home, and did not even have psychiatric diagnoses.

"It seems the use of psychoactive medication is trumping the use of nondrug treatments," Dr. Victor Molinari said, a professor of aging at the University of South Florida.

It's not only Florida. This is a problem which is part of many communities across country borders, where families have to fight to get them off harmful drugs. A problem with this, however, is that those same patients are then left without pain relief.

It's fine to over-medicate our elderly, but it is not okay for younger people, still active in the labor force, to use plant extracts which are useful for pain relief or stress reduction? No, I apologize. It's evidently better for them to go and get drunk instead. There's a fine line between recreational use and abuse, but I would argue that in the same way alcohol seems tantalizing to teenagers because they are not allowed to have it, cannabis smoking, although less harmful, is also used in part due to this mentality.

It is simply that cannabis, in the U.S. and some of Europe, is not necessarily seen in the same commercial light as it once was. What affect would it have on pharmaceutical companies if cannabis was once again made legal? Supporting medical and academic researchers have to fight to the death in order to develop its beneficial properties; and sometimes in the U.S. and UK, earn themselves jail time for doing so.

We frown upon cannabis for medical use, and even throw people in jail who purchase the plant for this very reason. Yet, if pharmaceutical companies wish it, then we pump people full of drugs that produce far stronger and more dangerous psychotic affects.

The argument between whether cannabis is therapeutic or narcotic is likely to continue for some time.

Is it social stigma, due to health side effects, or is it business?

Image credit: Flickr

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure