Fight for Medical Cannabis – Interview with Robert Cohen

Last week, The Academy sat down for a chat with Robert Cohen, a fibromyalgia patient, medical cannabis user and general advocate for increased awareness around the benefits of medical cannabis. Robert’s values spoke to us on a personal level, as LYPHE GROUP have recently been helping patients like Robert secure their prescriptions with trips to The Netherlands, a journey which presents numerous logistical and cost challenges but is nonetheless vital and necessary for patients. Speaking with him, we learnt a lot about the personal and physical issues affecting those with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and how medical cannabis can help to change people’s lives in this respect.

Robert started experiencing chronic pain around the age of 15 with the onset of winter aches. Initially given a diagnosis of rheumatism, his pain worsened and spread, leading to unsuccessful surgery and eventually being in a bed-ridden state. As Robert said himself: “Before I began having cannabis treatment, it was very, very difficult. Physically, I couldn’t do anything. I mean, I was bedridden at one stage where I just couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t do anything… I even struggled to keep up with my medication”.

And the prolonged difficulties Robert suffered at this time impacted him in more ways than just physically. The combined physical and mental impact of his condition, exacerbated by insomnia and fatigue, meant Robert was unable to help his ailing mother with her own health issues at the time. With his physical state at its worst and suffering from a state of helplessness, he described himself as “a wreck”, telling us that: “My mother was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and she [was] helping me and I [couldn’t] even get out of bed and help her. I was absolutely hopeless and helpless. I felt really bad about it for a long, long time, I had a lot of emotional pain caused because of that.”

After taking various forms of pharmaceutical treatment, Robert found that Lidocaine medications provided some relief, until around 2005 when he was removed from the prescription programme, and his situation deteriorated even more. Isolated, insecure, anxious and unable to walk, Robert received disabled status and required constant support. Fibromyalgia also affected Robert mentally in this time and when asked about how Fibromyalgia affected him during this period in non-physical ways, he told us: “Fibromyalgia also affects you in relationships. It puts you off wanting to be in a relationship because it makes everything so difficult. So all-in-all it’s a restrictor. It gets a hold of you and restricts your life”.

Thankfully, things started to take a turn for Robert a year later when he started researching cannabis around 2006. At a time when he was unable to lead a normal life, not being able to hold down relationships or enjoy socialising, he was willing to try anything that might help him.

And to Robert’s amazement and immense relief, cannabis did help.

It wasn’t just that cannabis was an effective remedy for the debilitating symptoms he suffered from. Prior opioid medications had left Robert in what he described as a state of “sluggishness”, with severe side effects ranging from constipation to weight gain and memory issues.

While an effective option for short to medium term pain management, for a chronic patient like Robert, opioids create their own profile of issues that simply aren’t sustainable. Fortunately, cannabis finally provided Robert with desperately needed relief from his symptoms while not diminishing his quality of life in other ways.

Robert had never dabbled with cannabis socially before and only became aware of its potential through self-driven research. He identified a doctor in Holland who might be able to help him, and even attempted to import his own medication at one stage, telling us simply that: “Due to desperation I needed my medicine. So I went and got it”.

This unfortunately wasn’t a successful venture. Held on re-entry, with the medications confiscated, Robert was given a warning that further attempts to bring cannabis from abroad into the country, regardless of medical need, would lead to criminal charges. As sympathetic and understanding as border officials may have been, the law at the time was clear and left their hands tied.

Having identified the value of cannabis for his condition, Robert was undeterred in his mission to help himself, and he turned to street products as a last resort. To Robert’s immense credit, he was clear-eyed about this choice. While he would have preferred not to have acquired cannabis in a way that supported criminal enterprise, it was his only choice at that point. Indeed, when we asked Robert about opiod use compared to cannabis he told us “I can take this other route that offers me the same class of pain management [as opioids] … it’s safe and unlike all the other stuff it frees my body”. For Robert, the choice of pain management remained clear despite the limitations he faced.

Robert is anything but naive though, and has an eminently sensible set of views around how medical cannabis should be regulated to avoid some of the harms of an uncontrolled recreational market.

Although dismissive of largely debunked ideas like gateway drug theory, he knows the substance can be abused without proper education. Robert believes, for example, that children should only ever use cannabis for medical reasons in a fully controlled manner.

In the fullness of time, once general literacy in the UK has improved, Robert thinks we could start to learn more from our neighbours, like Holland, where views on cannabis are far more liberal and medicalisation has advanced well beyond that of most countries.

For now, he recognises that with education lacking, too many UK doctors will be too reluctant to look at cannabis medicine despite the change in law to allow for its prescribing, but things are moving in the right direction.

The fact that he’s now able to get legitimate, legal prescriptions from Holland, albeit with the support of companies like Astral Health, is a positive step forward.

Until the NHS start to prescribe medical cannabis, and start to provide financial support for those prescriptions, Robert knows the road ahead could still present challenges, but he’s optimistic: “The information is out there and the evidence is out there. There are millions of people out there worse off than me – just help them.

With this optimism in mind, it’s unsurprising that Robert has openly made medical cannabis access a cause that he strives to spread awareness about, telling us: “I’ve made it a cause. And I’m not going to rest until this stuff is available medically for people with my condition and people who may not have my condition. If it’s medically needed, they should be prescribed it”.

For more information on cannabis-based treatment join our face to face training or take a look at our evidence base, a ground-breaking systematic review of the history of research in this area and a global first-of-its-kind searchable database for clinical referencing.

We also have specific, in-depth modules which explore the treatment of chronic pain conditions using medicinal cannabis products at length.

The rest of our comprehensive resources on medical cannabis are available on our website. We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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