The Case For Medical Cannabis

Anita Roddick, 9th January 2001ce

Picture this: Your mother is in her 70s and is struggling with cancer. Her only hope lies in chemotherapy treatments which she is now undergoing. You visit her often, and though she tries to put out a brave face on the situation, she admits that the chemo has put her in a constant state of unbearable nausea. You remember back to the time when you had nausea and your mother looked after you. You also remember realising that time that, of all the aches and pains you ever felt, nausea was the most intense. Was it something to do with the stomach’s proximity to the spine? You ask her ‘What do the doctors say?’ She tells you that he said that, by far, the remedy for chemo’s nausea was marijuana. He says that if they lived in parts of the United States he would be able to prescribe it, but here in the United Kingdom they both would be arrested. It is time to change the law.

I want to talk today about compassion and I want to put a human face on this issue. The face may belong to Elizabeth Ivol, a 50year old woman in the Orkneys with multiple sclerosis. Marijuana is the only thing she’s found that lifts that numbness of the MS and that eases the pain in her spine, but she could face jail for growing her own.

Or, on the other hand, it might belong to Robert Randall from Sarasota, Florida. For thirty odd years he’s been diagnosed with glaucoma, doctors told him he would be blind within five years, today he can still see as well as he did then, all credit due to the government-issued marijuana he gets every day.

I doubt that any one of us can have a hard time conjuring up the terror of blindness. Sight is the sense that we most fear losing. I can’t see out of one of my eyes. Unfortunately it’s nothing that marijuana can fix, but I know that if I was one of the millions of people suffering from glaucoma or retinitus pigmentosa and there was a substance that promised me relief, I would expect to have access to it and I would not expect to be treated as a criminal for using it.

Likewise if I was suffering from the wasting syndrome of AIDS or I was racked by the agonies of migraines or any kind of chronic pain, or if I couldn’t breathe because I was asthmatic, or if I had epileptic fits, I would want access. The fact is there is a substance with a proven long term ethicacy in treating all the above conditions that would seem, to me, a cause for celebration. Which leads me to one inescapable conclusion - the official stance on medical marijuana is inhumane and must be changed.

It also is utterly inconsistent with what we have known for the last five thousand years since the Chinese wrote about the medical benefits of the cannabis plant. In the ancient world it was an asset to any physicians pharmacopoeia. Even a hundred years ago, our own dear Queen Victoria’s doctor wrote that cannabis was one of the most valuable medicines we possess. He claimed it was the most effective treatment for pain he knew of.

So what does modern medicine prefer for the relief of many of the causes for many of these pains? It’s morphine. Now that’s undeniably effective for many things, but the line between the dose that relieves pain and the dose that causes death can get very fine. That risk does not lay with marijuana.

As for marijuana’s properties as an anti-convulsant; much praise in the nineteenth century. What does modern medicine prefer to prescribe? Phenobarbital or Diazepam, regular users develop a tolerance, even become addicted, which is really ironic in light of the fact that addiction is always the big demon raised by those who see decriminalisation of marijuana as a first step on a slippery downward slope. Marijuana has absolutely no proven addictive power. It is not a so-called gateway drug. So I ask you, what is more addictive, marijuana or ignorance?

Now I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to claim that marijuana is a miracle drug, a cure alternative to the drugs that doctors usually prescribe, but there are enough people who have claimed benefits from its use that it surely ought to be included in the available range of effective medications.

I look at this and I think, ‘what a Byzantine world’ - marijuana with proven medical benefits is banned, cigarettes with proven, factual fatal consequence are a politically protected industry. Alcohol consumed in excess is legal but deadly, marijuana consumed in moderation is illegal but beneficial.

Ask yourself the question, why is marijuana illegal? Is it because it’s dangerous? Not in comparison with alcohol which kills a small percentage of its users every year, let alone how many innocent victims on the roads. Certainly not in comparison with tobacco. When has cannabis ever been known to kill anyone?

Or maybe it’s because marijuana is addictive. No, but tobacco and alcohol are and they’re both legal. Clearly if addictiveness is held up as a reason for a ban then these two should be banned not cannabis. Oh, and goodbye coffee. Pharmacologists rank caffeine as more addictive that cannabis.

For me, our policy is random, it’s foolish, it’s harmful and must be changed. It may look like wilful ignorance but what it actually is, in my mind, is standard government-issue disinformation. The myth-making about the evils of marijuana conceals the fact that medicalisation of marijuana isn’t a health issue at all, it’s about politics and it’s about economics. In other words ‘let’s follow the money’.

In this case one very obvious trail leads to the pharmacology giants, where are the drug companies here today, who remind us that they seek to help those in pain, in the fight to decriminalise?

Early in the 20th century liquid cannabis extract was marketed to meet a massive demand for medical marijuana but nowadays there’s no money in the real thing so they’re marketing a synthetic equivalent of THC, marijuana’s active element, neatly packaged in a capsule, government-approved as a treatment for nausea and wasting syndrome. One such drug is Marinol. ‘It’s much better than crude marijuana’ they say, but it isn’t anywhere near. A vomiting patient cannot swallow a capsule. Marinol gets the thumb down from people it’s intended to help, and I might add at rather greater cost than a joint. Marinol I hear is thirty five pounds a pop whereas a joint with the same dosage costs between sixty pence and three pounds.

It is, for example, not unusual for AIDS patients to gain from twenty to thirty pounds when they start smoking marijuana, many of those on Marinol claim it doesn’t stimulate their appetite at all, besides which the drug has been implicated in psychotic episodes. Again, a reaction which does not apply to natural marijuana.

Now the politics are every bit as backward as the economics. Our policy turns the sick into criminals. They are compelled to turn to the underworld for their supply. This sort of policy clearly damages us all. If we want to reduce the harm we ought to spend less time negatively regulating individual behaviour and more time promoting overall social responsibility.

However, US Drugs Czar General Barry McCaffrey has stated that the decriminalisation of marijuana for medical purposes ‘sends the wrong signal to the young’, and Jack Straw recently parroted this sentence here.

How can compassion ever be seen as the wrong signal? Does that mean compassion is a wrong signal too? How in this day and age can we regard as criminals those seriously ill disabled people who simply want to do the best to take care of themselves? How can anyone stand by and not clamour for change when people are going blind, when people are becoming crippled, and when people are going to starve just because some daft policy stops them getting effective medicine?

Decriminalising cannabis for compassionate medical use is at least a light at the end of the tunnel for some people living with AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. It would bring desperately needed relief and dignity to their lives. So who do they think they are in denying them that?

And what about common sense? It shakes the credibility of the state to continue to maintain this position that is so easily disproved by peoples personal experience or a simple review of the facts. There is a safe, natural, effective alternative to the standard drugs I’ve mentioned. It’s called marijuana, and some day you and I may need it. It’s unreasonable, it’s arbitrary and it’s capricious to stand between ill people and valuable treatment.

Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop.

This is a transcription of a speech given to ‘Cannabis: Should It Be Decriminalised?’, a one day conference organised by the Independent On Sunday newspaper, held at the Queen Elizabeth II conference Centre, Westminster, London on 11 December 1997.

The full transcription of the conference, which includes speeches for different points of view made by a variety of prominent people in their field, as well as the panel answering questions from the floor, is available as a pamphlet for £2 from Godhaven Ink. Details can be found at

The complete text is also online at