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Priced Out: Why Patients Allowed Legal Medical Cannabis are Turning to the Black Market

Joseph Shaw meets Lesley Gibson, who has MS, and was taken to court for growing her own cannabis – because the batch prescribed to her legally was too expensive.

Why Patients Allowed Legal Medical Cannabis are Turning to the Black Market

Joseph Shaw meets Lesley Gibson, who has MS, and was taken to court for growing her own cannabis – because the batch prescribed to her legally was too expensive.

A year of political turbulence was 2019. There were many votes on the UK’s withdrawal bill to leave the EU, which didn’t seem to satisfy Brexiter or Remainer factions. Parts of major cities were shut down by climate emergency protestors. Boris Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership race, acted unlawfully in shutting down Parliament and then called a Christmas General Election, in which he won with a majority.

The news agenda has been engulfed in the flames of political warfare; overshadowing the struggles of people like Lesley Gibson. 

Lesley has had Multiple Sclerosis for more than 30 years and has been using cannabis to treat it for most of that time.

In January 2019, the 55-year-old was arrested and kept in a cell for eight hours after police raided her house in Carlisle and found cannabis plants and weed-infused chocolate bars. Eventually, she was given a trial date for this month.

I first met her weeks before her trial on 6 January. She was easygoing and bubbly. I asked Lesley what cannabis did for her MS and she explained that, when she was first diagnosed, the doctor had told her that she would be in a wheelchair and incontinent within five years. Her symptoms included paralysis, tremors, spasms and even lost speech.

Lesley was prescribed steroids which made her gain weight and grow a beard – “not what I wanted at 20 years old,” she added with a giggle. After trying other remedies, she met her husband and, through him, found cannabis “which was like a miracle for me”. According to Lesley, when she has a regular supply of cannabis, she can live a perfectly happy, normal life.

Although cannabis is a Class B drug and its possession can result in up to five years in prison, medical cannabis was legalised by the Government in November 2018. But, the change has been beset with problems and many are still not able to access cannabis for their conditions via legal means. It has also revealed the uneasy relationship between the police and people who use the drug.

“I don’t like police, they’ve never done anything to make me like them, they frighten my grandchildren, they terrorise me, they raid my house, they take my medicine off me,” Lesley said.

Some police forces – which she brands the “sensible” ones – including Durham and North Wales, have decided not to pursue people growing a few cannabis plants for their own personal consumption. It is fair to say that, whether you will be prosecuted for using cannabis, is a bit of a postcode lottery in Britain today.

So far, Lesley has paid for four prescriptions for cannabis. A clinic in Manchester charged her £250 for a consultation and then a further £695 for 30 grams of “flos” (a term for cannabis in its dried plant form). While a gram of weed bought illegally costs around £10, but clinic prices put a gram at £23 – over double the price. Why is there such a jump in the cost of cannabis from street-level to prescription?

Mike Barnes, clinical director of The Medical Cannabis Clinics, said that the drug is expensive for clinics to access, which results in a price mark-up for the patient. Legal cannabis has to be imported one prescription at a time from the Netherlands on a “named patient basis” and bulk shipments are not allowed.

Is this likely to change any time soon? It seems to be a ‘catch-22’: medical cannabis will remain expensive until there are more prescriptions but, because of the high cost, there are few. But Mr Barnes insisted that cannabis bought from a licensed supplier is a “better quality product” than that found on the street, where “you don’t know what you’re getting”. Lesley disagrees. She claims that the flos she bought legally made her cough because of the irradiation process used by the company which grew it.

On the day of her trial, the charges against Lesley and her husband Mark were dropped. She had paid off enough of her credit card debt to pay for another cannabis prescription so the prosecution was happy to offer no evidence. But, it was made clear that, if they were in court again, they would be prosecuted.

Will Lesley stick to this? “I’ll do as much as I possibly can, I’m not a bad person,” she said. “I’m very law-abiding. I never even had detention in school but I can’t let myself be incontinent and in a wheelchair.”

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