Do legal cannabis products really work as well as over-the-counter Ibuprofen?
A chance conversation overheard in a health food shop involving the words ‘amazing pain relief’ has transformed Rebecca Robinson’s life.
‘Amazing pain relief’ is an elusive, much sought-after goal for many millions of people with a huge range of health problems — but after almost a lifetime of enduring the effects of a joint disorder, Rebecca, 47, has found a solution she says is better than ibuprofen, paracetamol and codeine put together.
‘I can’t believe the overwhelming difference it’s made to my quality of life and how much more I can get done,’ she says. ‘I sleep properly because I’m not in pain and when I’m awake I’m really awake. It’s had a profound effect, more than anything I’ve ever taken.’
The wonder painkiller is an over-the-counter cannabis compound called cannabidiol (CBD).
There has been growing interest in medicinal cannabis, which is slightly different to CBD, since the summer when the Mail highlighted the cases of seven-year-old Alfie Dingley and 13-year-old Billy Caldwell, children stricken by a potentially life-threatening epilepsy that their parents and doctors said could only be controlled by using this — currently illegal — form of cannabis.
Last week, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that from next month ‘specialist’ (hospital) doctors — such as neurologists or paediatricians — will be able to prescribe medicinal cannabis — it will not be available from GPs.
There are concerns that, despite Mr Javid’s insistence otherwise, the decriminalisation of the medicinal use of cannabis will be followed by the same for its recreational use — Canada, which approved the medicinal use in 2001, has just become the first G7 country to do this.
CBD products, however, are different to medicinal cannabis — by law they contain under 0.2 per cent THC, and were approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for High-Street sale in late 2016.
CBD has since flown off the shelves — typically, it’s sold in the form of oils and capsules, but there are now plans to add it to food and drink, including possibly Coca-Cola, coffee, chocolate and even porridge.
Rebecca Robinson is a very recent convert to CBD. A professional photographer from Hessle, North Humberside, she suffers from joint hypermobility syndrome — an inherited condition which means the joints can move beyond the normal range, often leading to pain.
A divorced former civil servant, Rebecca, who lives with her 16- year-old daughter Molly, set up her own photography business 15 years ago, but has battled daily with her symptoms.
‘I had constant problems with aches and pains, clicking joints, easily pulled muscles, strains and fatigue,’ she says.
‘It was like a nagging tooth ache, that never went away — it was bad enough to keep me awake at night and utterly draining.’
Then she went to her local health food shop a few weeks ago looking for a new alternative to painkillers.
‘I overheard someone talking about the amazing results with this new product. I just had to interrupt and ask them what they were talking about, and I haven’t looked back,’ she says.
‘Since I started using the CBD oil I just feel completely different. I honestly can’t believe it.’ If Rebecca’s response to the treatment seems too good to be true, Chris Taylor, 41, a gas fitter from Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire — and a martial arts enthusiast — says he’s had a similar experience. He began taking CBD oil recently for a dislocated shoulder.
‘I have slept through the night for the first time since my son was born nearly 11 years ago,’ he says. ‘I had various other aches and pains caused by the amount of heavy lifting of boilers, pipes and radiators I do for work and they have all gone.
‘I was often taking co-codamol just to get to sleep, but no treatments really worked.
‘It was my 68-year-old mum who put me on to it. She’s really fit and goes to the gym, but she started taking CBD oil for sciatica and said it worked for her.’ Then there’s Alan Tunley, a 62-year-old construction site manager from Dudley, West Midlands, who told Good Health that CBD oil had speeded up his recovery from a hip replacement operation.
And retired Lancashire property consultant Georgina Taylor, 68, who suffers from osteoarthritis, says: ‘I take CBD oil capsules twice a day and the difference it has made to my life is astonishing. I never used to sleep properly, but now I do.
‘I’d given up on conventional medicines — I can’t tolerate ibuprofen or codeine as they upset my stomach and paracetamol doesn’t even touch the pain — but this works, with no side-effects.’
It’s over a century since Queen Victoria reportedly took to smoking cannabis to relieve period pain, but the drug gradually fell out of favour as a medicine and after the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, its use was banned altogether.
Now, however, hemp — or cannabis sativa, to use its scientific name — is being recognised for its medicinal properties, with evidence to suggest it can help with conditions such as epilepsy.
The CBD oil used by the patients we spoke to is derived from so-called ‘industrial’ hemp, which used to be grown in fields across Britain for rope, textiles and nutritious oil, but is now limited to just a few farms.
Hemp cannot be grown in this country without a licence (a further licence is needed to extract CBD). It’s the THC which doctors argue has to be present for patients to experience the beneficial effect — and it’s THC products that could now become available with a specialist prescription.
The issue with CBD is not legality, clearly — but it is expensive and there are concerns that many of the unregulated over-the- counter products may not contain enough to have any effect.
There is little doubt that it can help with pain in cancer patients, suggests Professor Angus Dalgleish a cancer specialist at St George’s Hospital University of London.
‘About a third of my patients are taking it,’ he says. ‘To me there’s no question CBD is more effective and better than THC which makes people zombie-like.
‘We know it works because there have been numerous studies comparing it with a placebo.
‘We have also just published the first evidence that cannabis may actually inhibit cancer cell growth in humans. It is early days but this could be very exciting indeed.’
A review published last month in the Psychiatry Journal of the American Medical Association, which looked at 18 studies comparing different forms of CBD with dummy treatments in alleviating pain caused by extreme cold or heat in healthy volunteers, concluded that it influenced the emotional element of pain, somehow making it more tolerable.
‘We know that it interferes with inflammatory signalling in the body and has a range of effects,’ says Professor Michael Heinrich, head of the school of pharmacy at University College London.
‘It is potentially more effective for pain than ibuprofen or paracetamol if it’s used properly but the problem is that it is a completely unregulated market.
‘Some CBD products may contain practically none of the actual ingredient, or the amount may be too high. It’s a real issue.’
Professor Heinrich is a member of the medical board at Cambridge Nutraceuticals which manufactures Future You CBD oil +, one of the new higher-concentration over-the-counter CBD brands (which, like the others, is not cheap, at £33 for just 28 daily capsules).
At the moment consumers have little way of knowing whether they are getting a quality product.
Cambridge Nutraceuticals is attempting to highlight the issue by commissioning a series of independent tests of CBD products by an external specialist laboratory.
‘We want to demonstrate why better quality standards are needed to protect consumers,’ said Adam Cleevely, the company’s chief executive.
The sea change in public attitudes towards CBD at least means companies are now considering using it to produce mood-boosting food and drinks.
Coors is already also developing a non-alcoholic cannabidiol-laced version of its best-selling lager in the U.S. and Coca-Cola is poised to get in on the act with plans to add CBD to its drinks in the U.S.
As the company has just taken over Costa Coffee, CBD in coffee could follow.
Meanwhile, Diageo, which owns dozens of alcohol brands from Pimms to Dom Perignon, has had recent meetings with three Canadian cannabis manufacturers, although a spokesman would only tell Good Health that ‘we are monitoring this space closely’.
Cambridge Nutraceuticals has also looked at adding CBD to chocolate and coffee and is now in talks with Moma, the maker of trendy porridge for on-the-go health- conscious commuters. It’s not clear if British hemp farmers will be able to meet growing demand.
Hemp comes in about 50 subspecies, with the oil-rich seeds containing varying levels of different canna-binoid chemicals as well as vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
Will the Home Office now issue CBD production licences in the UK? It won’t say, but Geremy Thomas, chief executive of Sativa Investments in London, who has set up a 160-acre hemp farm in Beckington, Somerset, thinks things will soon change.
He’s recruited Sir Alastair Breckenridge, former chairman of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, to his medical advisory board. ‘There is such a huge demand for this product because of its anti-inflammatory and other health properties,’ says Mr Thomas.
David Connolly, chairman of Celtic Wind Crops, an Irish CBD oil producer based near Dundalk, agrees. His company is supplying Lloyds Pharmacy which next Friday will become the first national pharmacy chain to offer a high-quality CBD health supplement.
Celtic Wind Crops itself is now planning to branch into skin products, soap and ultimately pet medicines.
‘There’s no reason it shouldn’t work just as well on animals as humans,’ he says. ‘I’ve started taking it and now sleep well and don’t suffer from anxiety. My two sons and two daughters take it and so does my 91-year-old mother who has gout in her fingers. There are huge possibilities with this.’