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‘Cannabis has given me my life back’, says local biological science lecturer

Date published: 03 February 2018


A local biological science lecturer has had his life given back to him, all thanks to cannabis.

Gary Cooper, from Rochdale, uses the controversial drug every day to cope with the pain he experiences from multiple chronic health conditions, including Marfan syndrome, scoliosis (an ‘S’ or ‘C’ shaped curve in the spine), and a heart condition.

Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue, leading to abnormal production of a protein called fibrillin, resulting in parts of the body being able to stretch abnormally when placed under any kind of stress. The defective fibrillin gene also causes some bones to grow longer than they should.

Gary, who uses a wheelchair to get around, said: “My connective tissue elasticises, and my joints are more prone to involuntary movement. I suffer with dislocated joints a lot, which click and grind, and I have a floating limb. It is an extremely painful condition and I tried every single drug they could throw at me.”

The 28-year-old, who used to lecture across a vast range of subjects such as zoology, agriculture, horticulture, veterinary science, biology, microbiology, biochemistry and genetics, previously took 197 opioid-based medications each week for his pain and symptoms. However, he had to leave his job due to the daily pain and side effects from such a quantity of pharmaceuticals.

He said: “The decision was made for me; I needed to find another way.

“Despite my numerous health conditions, and spending the past year staring at the wall wishing I was dead because I could not even focus enough to read a book or move for long due to the pain, I have spent months at physio building the muscles up in my legs, so I can stand up again. Full extract cannabis oil is helping me do that, and I have also not had any heart palpitations since I have been taking the oil, which is mixed with coconut oil.

“It could save the NHS millions if it is legalised: I want to show there is nothing to be ashamed of. Cannabis is the sole source of relief for many suffering from chronic health conditions and unfortunately, I could fill a large room with the number of people currently known within the Rochdale area whose only source of relief – like me – is cannabis.”

Gary first began using cannabis when he was 17. However, since using the oil, Gary claims he is pain-free for around six hours at a time, and has not set foot in hospital since before Christmas 2017 – a mammoth achievement when he used to frequent twice each week.

He said: “I feel normal. So I thought while I have my mind and sanity back, I might as well create a legal educational charity in the UK - open up a biotechnology lab, research cannabinoids and create lab-quality tested legal UK products.

“People should be given the opportunity to safely use the drug, not be classed as criminals. In the Netherlands, people are allowed two plants for personal use. They have the healthiest people on the planet. It boggles the mind that it is actually illegal especially because its abuse potential is less harmful than sugar and alcohol.

“We would not have an endocannabinoid system if it was not important, just like all the other biological systems.”

Just days ago, Gary officially set up an online community – “Coops Roots” – after three years of unofficial work. The motto is ‘educate, regulate, legislate, medicate’.

In Gary’s own words, Coops Roots is “a charitable community of patients helping patients, here you can share information, seek advice and share your story. Coops Roots aims to reduce harm by enabling medicinal cannabis users to have a safe space to consume and learn about cannabis for people living with serious and debilitating conditions/illness in the UK”.

He added: “I have also started looking at other homeopathic remedies, like ashwaganda, which is an anti-inflammatory, and a molecule applied to the skin, which increases the effect of topically applied oil.”

He hopes to register Coops Roots as a charity in the near future.

What is cannabis?

Cannabis is a naturally derived recreational drug from the cannabis plant, typically found as soft brown/black lumps made from the plant resin, or sticky, hairy buds with sugar-like crystals.

The main active chemical in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC), an ingredient known as a ‘cannabinoid’ – this is responsible for the high, relaxed feeling users experience. This is produced when THC binds with cell receptors to mimic a cannabinoid produced within the body, the neurotransmitter anandamide (also known as ‘the bliss molecule’).

Cannabis oil (hashish or hemp oil) is less common, and is a concentrate of cannabinoids extracted from the crude plant material or resin by solvents.

The drug is typically smoked as a joint after being mixed with tobacco, or a blunt without tobacco. It may also be inhaled through a bong, pipe or vaporiser, and can also be ingested.

Legality

The latest statistics from the Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales (2016/17) show one in three (29.6%) adults aged 16 to 59 reported using cannabis at some point during their lifetime.

Cannabis was also the most commonly used drug in 2016/17, with 6.6 per cent of adults aged 16 to 59 having used it in the last year (around 2.2 million people), and 6.4 per cent of 16-24 year olds having used it in the last year (around one million young adults).

Despite its popularity, cannabis is illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, where it was reclassified to a Class B drug in 2009. The substance had previously been considered a Class C drug under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 from January 2004.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is intended to prevent the non-medical use of certain drugs, controlling both medicinal drugs (also covered by the Medicines Act 1968) and drugs with no current medical use.

Possessing a class B substance carries a maximum sentence of five years plus a fine, whereas supply can see this rise to 14 years, including a fine.

However, there are exemptions under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, which allows for the lawful possession and supply of controlled drugs for legitimate purposes. This includes prescribing, administering, safe custody, dispensing, record keeping, destruction and disposal of controlled drugs.

Currently, cannabis is regulated as a schedule one drug: the most stringently controlled type which are often only authorised for research purposes.

Possession of Class A drugs, including cannabis oil, can result in up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both. Supplying and producing Class As can land you in prison with a life sentence.

Why is it controversial?

Cannabis has been linked with a decline in mental health. It has also been suggested that it can lead to harder drug use in the future.

A 2015 study published in Scientific Reports compared the highest risk of death across 10 substances, including cannabis, alcohol and tobacco. The researchers found cannabis was the only drug examined that posed a low risk of death, in line with previous research citing it as the safest recreational drug.

According to NHS Choices, “research shows that 10% of regular cannabis users become dependent on it. Your risk of getting addicted is higher if you start using it in your teens or use it every day.”

Gary commented: “Addiction probably is not the right word to use for cannabis as our endocannabinoid systems are already craving cannabinoids. It is more about abuse potential like alcohol or cigarettes. I know people that can not cope without it and they have no medical conditions, it has become habit-forming for them.

“Everyone is different and there are always exceptions to any rule in nature.”

Cannabis has also been associated with a deterioration in mental health and increasing risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. Research over the years has produced mixed results.

It has also often been suggested that cannabis can be ‘a gateway drug’ – leading to use of other ‘harder’ drugs such as heroin. Drugwise points out that “while it is true that most people who use heroin will have previously used cannabis, they are also likely to have smoked tobacco and consumed alcohol. Only a small proportion of those who try cannabis go on to use heroin”.

A shift

Despite its legal status and controversy, preconceptions and prejudices around the drug are changing.

In 2015, Durham police actively stopped chasing users and small-scale growers – in a bid to prioritise their resources against more serious crime, according to The Guardian. It is a move that inspires Gary in his Coops Roots journey.

Further afield, several North American states, such as Colorado and Washington, announced intentions in 2012 to decriminalise cannabis, making it legal from 2014.

It has been used to medicate a range of conditions and disorders, from respiratory and musculoskeletal diseases to circulatory, metabolic and mental disorders.

A 2016 survey conducted on over 600 medical cannabis users by United Patients Alliance found the top conditions treated included depression, anxiety, pain, arthritis, insomnia, fibromyalgia, PTSD, spinal damage, irritable bowel syndrome, trauma/injury, Multiple Sclerosis, ADHD, migraines, neuropathy, cancer, sciatica, Crohns, asthma and bipolar disorder.

Medicinal popularity


In 2010, GW Pharmaceutical’s Sativex was the first cannabis-based prescription to be licensed in the UK. It is administered as a spray, containing both THC and cannabidiol (CBD – a non-psychoactive compound) in addition to other cannabinoids, to relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

In 2016, CBD became legal to purchase in the UK as a medicine in its own right. It does not induce a high like THC and is approved for medicinal use under licence. Unlike THC, CDB does not bind to cell receptors.

United Patients Alliance points out that CBD works by preventing an enzyme from breaking down natural cannabinoids, thus increasing the amount in a person's system.

In November 2017, the Daily Mail reported user numbers had doubled to 250,000 in just one year, seeking relief for conditions like back pain, migraine, rheumatism, MS, anxiety and epilepsy.

In April 2017, an 11-year-old boy who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy made headlines when he became the first Briton to be prescribed the drug on the NHS.

US specialists began treating Billy Caldwell from Northern Ireland with cannabidiol in a hope to control his seizures, which he used to experience up to 100 times each day, and since he was first given the oil, Billy has not had a single seizure.

The future


Oxford University is set to launch a £10 million research programme into the role of medicinal cannabis for treating pain, cancer and inflammatory diseases.

Gary is currently writing a book about his cannabis experiences, and hopes to look at education, training for employment, conservation and sustainability in the future, in addition to working alongside charities.

He commented: “I also want to go into community bases and centres to deliver courses and projects to the public on horticulture, zoology, agriculture and even veterinary ones -any animal with a backbone has an endocannabinoid system too.

“Views on cannabis are changing and I would like to help educate the public and show that cannabis is actually a force for good that can help our communities and families as a whole. Some people do not like the smell, but there are ways around that like capsules and vaping.

“Even my GP has started looking into the benefits of cannabis, and I believe it is because I have a scientific background.”

Gary also hopes to return to teaching in September this year and set up a physical location for Coops Roots.

He concluded: “I will be traveling around the country this year meeting UK scientists and learning skills to assist in the opening of my own UK cannabis education facility and biotechnology company, writing articles on what scientific research is being carried out currently in the UK.

“It is a process and it is going to take time to start up, but I am looking forward to the journey.”

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