Billions of tiny receptors

Posted by in October's Magazine

We are still shackled to The Misuse of Substances Act (1971) says Dan Collins

Alot has changed since 1971; it was the end of Sean Connery’s tenure as 007, and the beginning of decimal currency. The Daily Mail went from a broadsheet to a tabloid, and music lovers across the country tuned in to the debut of The Old Grey Whistle Test.  



1971 was also the year that the British Government declared, for the first time, that cannabis had no medical value (this assertion has since been parroted by ministers on every side of parliament for decades). The Misuse of Substances Act (1971) has been the foundation of all drug legislation in this country for almost 50 years, and while it sought to reduce harm through stringent punishment of both drug users and dealers, it also tied the hands of doctors to prescribe one of the most benevolent plants in all of nature. 

Just a couple of years earlier scientists isolated THC and CBD, the active ingredients in cannabis, but subsequent research during prohibition and ‘the war on drugs’ was deemed too costly and too risky for any scholar interested in the properties and applications of the newly discovered class of chemicals called ‘cannabinoids’. Pharmaceutical companies formulated their own synthetic cannabinoids but they were quickly withdrawn from testing because of their severe side effects.   

20 years go by and in the late 80s/early 90s scientists discover the presence of cannabinoid receptors in humans; billions of tiny receptors that respond to the compounds produced in bountiful quantities by cannabis and hemp plants. 

All of us have this network of cannabinoid hardware in our brains and bodies, and we make our own cannabinoids to fuel it. The endocannabinoid system regulates a vast array of bodily functions and is implicated in almost every human ailment. 

A reasonable government would have at least allowed the medical profession to investigate the potential of the cannabis plant, but intransigence has long been a hallmark of political leadership, particularly when it comes to evocative, vote-winning subjects like drugs, crime, and punishment. 

A victim of spice 

Flying in the face of reason, compassion and evidence, cannabis retained its illegal status because there just wasn’t enough research, owing to the fact that research itself was illegal. It was deemed a more prudent course of action to ‘just say no’ to cannabis because no administration wants to admit that the current approach is not only wrong, but actively harmful to the vulnerable people who are not able to access a safe, legal supply of herbal matter under the supervision of their physician.

Another 20 years go past, and during the noughties cannabis is moved from a class B drug, to a class C drug, and then back again. In 2009 the Home Secretary Alan Johnson declares “we cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy” as he sacks his chief adviser on drugs for daring to present robust evidence contradicting the entrenched stance on the safety and utility of both legal and illegal substances. 

Meanwhile a group of novel psychoactive substances, so-called ‘legal highs’, are being openly sold on high streets across Britain using a glaring loophole in the 1971 drug legislation. 

1971 was also the year that the British Government declared, for the first time, that cannabis had no medical value – this assertion has since been parroted by ministers for decades

Many of the recipes used to make ‘legal highs’ are based on the shelved synthetic cannabinoids that I mentioned earlier; untested, unstable and resolutely unpleasant, these man-made compounds run amok in young and vulnerable people who are lured into the fallacy that legal = safe. The wholesale ban on cannabis led directly to the creation of something much, much more dangerous.

Within a few years, the government published its new Psychoactive Substances Act (2016), which attempted to rid the streets of ‘legal highs’ such as spice, and mephedrone. Perhaps not surprisingly, these drugs are still widely available today, particularly popular in prisons, but use is highest among the homeless population. 

2018 marked a sea change owing to the high profile case of a young boy using cannabis oils prescribed by a Canadian neurologist. In the face of an impending PR disaster the Home Office relented and agreed to reschedule cannabis, ushering in the supposed dawn of legal prescriptions. 

Recently published prescribing guidelines from The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

basically say, ‘do not prescribe’ over and over and over. While hundreds of thousands of sick, sad and sore people wait for the UK to catch up with our neighbours in Canada, Israel, Germany, America and the Netherlands, some of whom have had medical cannabis access for decades without any evidence of harm. 

New Zealand is holding a referendum on the subject next year, and in the background huge investment groups shuffle enormous quantities of capital around the globe, looking for the next cannabis market to exploit for profit.  

Meanwhile the decision makers in the UK and Scotland struggle to get their head around the notion that cannabis might actually work. Not because of plant magic, wishful thinking nor divine intervention, but because of the endocannabinoid system. Google it.

This all begs the question, where are we now? Perhaps more importantly, what does the future hold? Neither of these questions is easy to answer.

Our current cannabis legislation is ostensibly not fit for purpose, and the people that suffer are closer than you might think. There are thousands of cannabis users in Edinburgh who are accessing the plant illegally and using it medicinally.


Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *