Are British Medicinal Cannabis Users Turning to the Black Market to Get Sativex?
It’s a Thursday afternoon in Leeds and I’m off to meet a black market drug dealer who claims he sells Sativex to people for medicinal use. For those of you that are unfamiliar, Sativex is the UK’s first cannabis-based medicine for treatment of spasticity, a common symptom of multiple sclerosis. I arrive at one of the Wetherspoons that can be seen on practically every street the city centre with a spring of curiosity in my step. It’s early-afternoon and although the place wasn’t full there were a number of patrons dotted around consuming a state-sponsored legal high – alcohol – and one of them my source.
“Don’t take too much of this stuff or it could make you sick,” the tall dealer uttered in a barely recognisable, thick Yorkshire drawl. He handed me a 10ml white bottle about the size of a shot glass and a pint of lager before explaining that I could have the bottle as a sample but after that the cost would be £70 a pop.
We shared a stiff Moroccan hash joint in the smoking area before we parted ways and while he declined to offer any insight into how he ended up selling it, he insisted that what he had given me was the real deal, produced by GW Pharmaceuticals. He assures me that there is a roaring demand for it in the locality amongst medicinal cannabis users.
I needed to know more. The first person I spoke to was a 36-year-old tennis coach called *Javaid. He has epilepsy and although he has recreationally consumed cannabis in the past he is not a regular user. “My experience with Sativex has been very pleasant,” he insisted. “It gives me peace of mind in terms of my epilepsy. I’m not sure if it is a direct causal link but I haven’t had a fit since I started using it.”
Javaid is not prescribed the medicine by a doctor but instead gets it “off a friend who has contacts”. He told me he doesn’t know “how they come across it” but is “very grateful for their efforts”. Does it get you high? “It does get you high. I’ve had more sprays now whereas the first ever experience two sprays got me extremely high but now my tolerance has increased.” At a cost of £50 for a 10ml bottle Javaid claims he doesn’t use it recreationally: “I try and use it sparingly – every now and then – rather than as a recreational thing. It’s medicinal.”
The next subject I spoke to was *Lou, a woman suffering from MS who has a prescription for Sativex but finds the red tape surrounding the medicine impossible to deal with at times. She has been on Sativex for a number of years and has “found it to be very effective”. She has none at the moment though because her doctor is unavailable and requires an annual review of the prescription. “As soon as I got it [was prescribed it] I thought ‘fantastic, I don’t have to grow anymore’,” she said. “But, because of all the fuss around the medicine, I come across these problems where I can’t have it for a couple of weeks. So I have to grow. I use one little plant at a time to make one bottle; each bottle lasts a week.”
Luckily Lou has had plenty of support from her local cannabis community: “I’m in a fantastic network at the minute; I only have to update my status that I have no Sativex and within five minutes someone has messaged me,” she informed me in a relieved tone of voice. “Have you heard of a company called Bud Buddies? They sent me two bottles of what’s sort of replacement Sativex but I’m not tolerant to them because they’ve flavoured it with essential oils.”
Lou suffers regularly from a range of side effects due to her illness. “MS involves all sorts of things,” she explains. “You can have dizziness, balance problems, lots pain, aching in your joints, facial pain (I get that quite often), pain in the extremities, nausea; the list goes on and on. It’s a massive illness. Sativex is rather fantastic; it’s formulated to decrease the spasms and pain.”
So it seems pretty obvious that this treatment is helping her with her symptoms immensely, but are there any side-effects? “Not really,” she insists. “Sometimes I feel sleepy but it actually makes me feel as close to normal as possible with my condition.”
I asked Lou how it feels having to become a criminal in order to always have access to effective medicine. “I was terrified at first,” she told me. “But now I don’t give a crap. It’s a stupid saying – I hate to say it – but it is how it is. You just have to get on with it.” Has she ever come close to being caught green-handed with growing? “No, I’ve had the police around a couple of times for [cannabis] related incidents but they’ve never come into the house so they haven’t found the grow room.”
“Everybody should be allowed to have it,” Lou stressed at the end of our conversation. “There should be no big deal with cannabis but there is. It’s a medicine, you wouldn’t use it recreationally.”
At this point in the investigation I remember thinking that two things are for sure:
- I don’t know if what I have is authentic Sativex or not; it’s a black market product so it could be anything – from poison to water and any other substance in between.
- Assuming it is real, the only way to find out if it gets you high is to consume some.
Having lived under a prohibitionist regime for all my life now, I am quite used to taking such risks so – in the name of education and knowledge – I took two sprays which, according to the bottle is 2.7 mg delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol(THC) and 2.5 mg cannabidiol (CBD).
2:00pm: Take two sprays of Sativex (a strange and intense minty taste with a powerful skunky aftertaste; like chewing a stem).
3:00pm: Feel a bit sleepy (placebo?) but no real effect.
4:00pm: No effect.
6:00pm: Return the Sativex from where it came from quite disappointed.
It’s a real sad state of affairs when I hear about an ill person (in need of help and compassion, not a potential criminal record) having to go to the black market in search of an effective medicine.
What have we, a developed country, come to?
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*The names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the sources
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