A couple of weeks ago Sativex finally got its licence and is now a fully approved medicine which can be prescribed to MS sufferers – “MSers” as they like to be known.
As it happens, in real life I spend a lot of my time huddled over hot computer screens editing videos and because of this my help was sought by a local MSer and friend of mine who wanted to make a video for newly diagnosed MSers – nothing to do with cannabis, this was to be aimed at people whose lives had suddenly been changed by the words “you have MS”.
To this end she had got a grant from somewhere to make this video provided she got a load of kids to make it, so off she went with a script and a load of video kit supplied by Norwich’s Forum “Voices” project. Eventually I get a phone call asking if I can help sort it all out as perhaps the inevitable had happened and the complex project has overwhelmed everyone involved. So we were up against a deadline of about two weeks to put it together – and it had to be edited by a kid. So it came to pass that “Shifting MS” was finished with about a day or two to spare and Norwich gained a young person with deep end experience of Final Cut Pro, the edit software. There are a few rough edges, but it’s not bad.
The point of telling this story of course is that the subject of cannabis came up in conversation. Now my friend is not a cannabis user herself but of course she knows several MSers who are. What she knew about cannabis I think was limited to the “fact” that these days it’s all “skunk” and it’s illegal. She didn’t seem to realise just what Sativex actually is and it’s no surprise given the way the press has handled the story. As The Telegraph reported on 20th June
Even if you were to track down the location and break into the computer-controlled greenhouse, the cannabis plants you would find at GW Pharmaceuticals’ top-secret farm would be unlikely to give you the high you were hoping for.
“The chances are you’d end up with a plant that has no psychoactive potential anyway. That’s the ultimate irony,” says Justin Gover, managing director of the Aim-listed biotech business, which is understandably secretive about the whereabouts of its marijuana.
But while GW’s genetically unique cannabis plants might leave you frustratingly sober, it is their non-psychoactive properties that are altogether more interesting.
So “everybody knows” Sativex isn’t this nasty skunk cannabis the press has been warning parents about for so long, it isn’t something you can use to get stoned with, it’s a medicine made from the “good” bits of the cannabis plant, with all the hippy mind warping pleasure potential removed.
Perhaps it’s time to set the record straight as to just what this product is: Time for a short reality check.
Firstly the claim that if you were to “break into the computer-controlled greenhouse, the cannabis plants you would find … would be unlikely to give you the high you were hoping for” is only half true – almost exactly half true to be precise. The thing that makes Sativex different from “normal” cannabis is that it’s a blend of two strains, one being a Ruderalis that produces a lot of CBD and the other being a Sativa that produces a lot of THC – this one certainly will do the business. By growing the plants in properly controlled conditions they can produce a very precise yield of the two drugs. They then mash the plants up, dissolve the resin in alcohol and mix it together and the result is this new wonder drug.
Firstly, what GW Pharms have done is to demonstrate nicely the fact that cannabis can be grown to order regarding strength. One of the claims made by prohibition supporters over the years was that it was a highly variable plant – it is, but only because of its illegality. A consistent product is actually very easy to produce, as any home growing enthusiast worth his salt will tell you.
Second, if so-called “skunk” is cannabis grown intensively using hydroponics from cuttings under sophisticated lights, then Sativex is made from “skunk” cannabis. The grow methods of your average large scale gangland warehouse grow-op use the exact same same methods, albeit without the “computer control”. Actually, this may concern some people and with good reason; Sativex is not organically grown natural cannabis, it’s a chemical weed that never sees the light of day. It’s also worth noting that this applies to both types of plants used to make the medicine, the high THC Sativa and the high CBD Ruderalis are both grown in the “skunk” way. This just demonstrates that the method of growing is not the cause of the great “skunk” problems as claimed by the prohibition supporters, you can grow any type of cannabis this way and do it very, very precisely.
Third, Sativex is essentially what is also known as “hash oil” on the street. This is a form of cannabis not too often seen, but it used to be quite popular back in the 70’s. albeit an expensive special treat for stoners. Oil is a concentrated form of hashish, itself a concentrated form of the herbal plant. As described above the plant is mashed up and the oils are dissolved off using solvents. Wikipedia, which is not always to be trusted in every detail, offers this version:
Hash oil is an evaporated solution of tetrahydrocannabinol and various other compounds produced by a solvent extraction of cannabis. Despite the similarity in names, it does not resemble hashish. It can be a very potent drug due to its high THC concentration, which generally varies between 70 – 90 percent
Sativex of course is less potent than this at only(!) 50% THC, but in essence it’s the same thing except that in the case of oil it was generally wiped on a rizla paper and put into a joint, Sativex comes dissolved in alcohol and is sprayed under the tongue. The interesting thing to come out of this is the way Sativex is talked about, the prohibitionist language of potencies isn’t mentioned, instead we hear of doses measured in milligrams. The fact that the medicine is a concentrated version of natural cannabis containing perhaps double the percentage concentration of THC to the normal “skunk” varieties doesn’t even get a mention. This is, of course, because the “potency” approach of prohibition is wrong, what is important is how much THC there is relative to CBD and how much is taken in each dose.
In passing it should be noted that “oldskool” hash like we used to get from North Africa came pretty close to this magical figure of 50/50 THC to CBD according to the government’s research and hash oil made from these plants could have had that sort of ratio.
So in truth Sativex isn’t in anyway new, it’s just a carefully grown blend of specific types of cannabis supplied in a spray bottle that delivers a precise dose.
So are MSers happy? Well, not yet – or at least I have yet to hear of any although I almost certainly will. Cannabis isn’t a cure for MS, but it does help many sufferers. It’s been one of the most shameful aspects of the present policy toward cannabis that people suffering an illness like this have been dragged through the courts simply for using a natural herb to ease their suffering. Now they can get it free on the NHS, in theory, but there’s a snag. Sativex is the product of big pharma and it’s a commercial product – it doesn’t come cheap. It’s estimated according to Reuters
Announcing its launch in Britain on Monday, GW said the National Health Service (NHS) price would be 125 pounds for a 10 millilitre vial — enough to last the average patient just over 11 days.
That compares with about £20 paying over inflated black market prices for street cannabis. Someone is making a big fat profit here. Is this a case of the criminal law being used to allow big business a monopoly over a product that would otherwise be costed in pence per dose? If so, this is pretty shameful.
In the meantime I’m going to re-edit “Shifting MS” now the youth project is over and we’ve had a chance to plough through the tens of gigabytes of interviews, which means we can work from higher quality masters, so “Shifting MS 2 will hit Youtube in the next few weeks. No doubt I’ll be hearing of MSers reaction to their new legal medicine, I’ll report back.