Julien is showing us around his family’s idyllic eco campsite, just outside Canterbury in Kent. He points out the fire pits for campers, rain-flushed toilets, and the glamping field that’s brimming with luxury teepees every summer. Then he sits down on one of the picnic benches, pulls out a baggie containing Girl Scout Cookies, a high-Indica strain of cannabis, and rolls a spliff.
As he sparks it, Julien explains how since the age of 15, this is how he’s tried to manage his mental health. Now 20, Julien has been entirely free of the self-harm, violent behaviour and suicidal thoughts that plagued his younger years. For the last 18 months things had been looking up. That was until he was arrested for cultivation and charged with intent to supply, which has thrown his progress into jeopardy.
Medical marijuana is slowly winning public acceptance and legal protection around the world: in the US, Canada, Germany, Italy and beyond. It’s beginning to prove its effectiveness for treating physical symptoms, from pain relief to managing side effects of cancer treatment, but its potential to treat mental health issues is less well understood – and negative media coverage often links smoking with psychosis.
Yet in the UK, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 Substance, which means the government denies it has any medicinal value. However, Julien is one of hundreds of thousands of patients in the UK defying the law and Daily Mail scare stories to successfully self-medicate their mental health conditions such as Anxiety, Depression and PTSD – and who are backed by a growing weight of scientific research.
Inside his family’s cosy little cottage, Julien’s mother Laura explains how his symptoms began around age 12. “Something in him kind of changed, he got into trouble at school and became so violent – never towards others, but crashing around and breaking stuff,” she says. “He was totally out of control and there was nothing I could say to calm him down. Seeing someone you know so well in such a sad place is quite…”, she trails off.
Julien was initially diagnosed with anger management issues and placed in counselling, and was then diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety. His school work suffered and it put a huge strain on his family relations. GP-appointed therapists had little to offer besides strong medication – which he refused – and his parents felt powerless to help.
At fifteen, Julien smoked cannabis for the first time, recreationally. “Within a few weeks I realised it calmed me completely,” he says. “Feeling relaxed, I began to understand how much of an emotional rollercoaster I was on the rest of the time. That clarity helped me to start doing well at school again and overcome the anxiety of exams.”
As he learned more about his condition and successful treatment strategies, smoking cannabis allowed him to bring his emotions under control, and eventually he won a place on a music degree course at BIMM in Brighton. “It really changed my life,” he says.
Despite anecdotal evidence reported by thousands of British patients like Julien, guidance on cannabis from the Royal College of Psychologists warns of the mental health dangers it poses, particularly for young people, such as elevating the risk of developing a psychotic illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Media coverage too often amplifies the risks, especially psychosis in teenagers caused by “skunk” or high potency strains.
To get to the bottom of the conflicting claims around cannabis and its relation to mental health issues, I spoke to Professor Mike Barnes, who was recently tasked by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform (APPG) to undertake the most comprehensive review of evidence on medical marijuana from the around the world. The report concluded that marijuana posed significant medical benefits, and he encouraged the government to create a legal framework for treatment and further research.
Professor Barnes stresses the differences between cannabis’ two main active ingredients, THC and CBD. CBD has proven antipsychotic properties and has shown remarkable success in treating anxiety, whereas THC can trigger psychotic incidents, especially in those with a family history of conditions like schizophrenia. However, he highlighted one study among light female users that found the incidence of schizophrenic episodes was just one in 29,000.
“I’m not going to say it’s the be-all and end-all, but overall, cannabis is a sensible treatment,” explains Professor Barnes, whose study found it to be effective in tackling Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and, to a lesser extent, Depression. “You also have to compare it with other drugs available. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs work, but they have significant side effects. Cannabis has a better safety profile than both those alternatives.”
Prohibition provides little deterrent to patients aware of the benefits of cannabis, but its continued illegality prevents many more from doing so, explains Jonathan Liebling, Political Director of the United Patients Alliance (UPA), an advocacy group for UK medical marijuana patients.
“Thousands of our supporters are treating physical and mental conditions effectively,” he explains. “But we must continue to push for legalisation because continued illegality, which flies in the face of the available evidence, creates serious problems. It increases people’s anxieties about seeking treatment, decreases access to quality medication specific to patients’ conditions, adds substantial costs and pushes patients into the arms of criminals.”
With the permission of his parents, Julien began growing cannabis strains that best suited his symptoms – Indicas, with higher ratios of CBD to THC. Despite his success at university, and beginning to feel he’d turned a corner, a police stop for a broken car light brought him face to face with the law – and brought his world crashing down.
“They found cannabis in my car and 100 grams in my room after a harvest,” Julien explains. “I was strip searched and spent 16 hours in a cell. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. I was so emotional, just crying in my cell. I had almost felt like things were really good, but after that I couldn’t go back to uni because of my mental state.”
On the wall of his bedroom, he has the sentencing guidelines, with the possible outcomes for him marked in yellow highlighter. He’s hoping for a fine, community service or a suspended sentence – but he could end up with jail time. “Not knowing adds to my anxieties, it’s horrible,” he says. “I have that on my wall to reassure myself.”
After 18 months of living independently, Julien had to go back to a therapist to help deal with a recurrence of self-harm and suicidal thoughts brought on by his arrest. He’s finally been successfully diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Anxiety. But while he waits in an agonising limbo, he can no longer grow, and has to pay £80 on the dark web per week for medication to manage his symptoms – which varies greatly in quality.
Although both the British public and politicians already overwhelmingly support medical legalisation, we’re still waiting for the political process to catch up. After the House of Commons has rejected widespread drug decriminalisation, legalisation of medical marijuana is the greatest hope for drug policy reform advocates. Yet, the government’s position is increasingly illogical. It rejected the APPG report in September 2016 which highlighted the strong scientific case for medical marijuana and called for legalisation, arguing that “cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health” – in direct contrast to Professor Barnes’ findings.
One small comfort for Julien comes from the hope that awareness of his story might help create change. “I have always wanted to be involved in [medicinal cannabis] in some way because I wanted to help others, that was my life goal,” Julien explains. “It’s important to open up access, it needs to be made available.”
So, how do his parents feel about the continued illegality in the UK, when in other places, like many states in the US, he could access medication legally and without fear of the authorities? “We were skeptical at first,” Laura admits.
“But the more you understand Julien’s issues, the more you see how [cannabis is] actually having a positive effect and not a negative one. Julien’s only one little drop in the ocean of people who could feel better. [Prohibition] is kind of mean, isn’t it?”
Find out more about the campaign for medical marijuana at End Our Pain.