The Clinical Cannabis Convention 2017

By William Wallace

William Wallace is a full-time drug policy reform activist and the operations manager for South Africa's first cannabis related non-profit company, Fields of Green for ALL. As an active participant in various grass roots campaigns and as frequent media guest, William has sought to bring balanced and often unique insight into what remains a controversial issue in the country.

The Clinical Cannabis Convention took place in Johannesburg on the 5th of August 2017. It was the first event of its nature in South Africa and sought to bring together medical professionals, healthcare workers, traditional healers, caregivers and patients to gain valuable insight into the various medical dynamics of the cannabis plant.

While a unanimous Cape Town High Court ruling earlier this year found that cannabis may be legally consumed by citizens within the privacy of their own home, much confusion remains until the court case inevitably finds its way to the South African Constitutional Court for a final ruling on the finer details of how legalisation should officially be rolled out. Hot on the heels of the of the Cape Town ruling is the separate trial taking place in the North Gauteng High Court, in which Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke of Fields of Green for ALL non-profit company are suing several government departments in what has been dubbed by the media as "The Trial of The Plant".

La Convención sobre Cannabis clínico 2017
Arne Verhoef: Meet the cannabis Plant

On the ground though recreational and medical users continue to be arrested alike, creating a vacuum in which supply and demand remain a difficult scenario particularly for patients who are not accustomed to the rigors of attaining illicit cannabis products.

Something that has also recently emerged across the nation are a slew of medical professionals who may not legally consider any part of the plant as an option for patients, but are also unable to continue turning a blind eye to the booming demand for cannabis based treatments. This has created a vacuum in which practitioners and patients are equally desperate for education in this new frontier for the country. Fortunately, there is some relief on the horizon in this regard due to pending legislation that will see the slight rescheduling of the plant to allow for research into and potentially the supply of medical cannabis products.

The Clinical Cannabis Convention was fully booked in expectation of this pending legal progress and received a surprising amount of public support given the still somewhat taboo nature of the topic. I managed to speak to the convention organiser, Myrtle Clarke of Fields of Green for ALL, just before the highly anticipated presentations began for the day. "We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support received. Today proves that the desire for sound cannabis knowledge is very real across the board."

"Bringing some of the world's leading experts to be witnesses in our trial felt like a good opportunity to hopefully raise funds towards some of the significant legal expenses involved. We could not do this without the support of the people here today and our generous sponsors"

La Convención sobre Cannabis clínico 2017
Dr Marlon Germon: The Endocannabinoid System

Speakers at the convention consisted of leading local and international agricultural, medical, drug policy and legal minds.

  • Dr Keith Scott: MC and introductions
  • The Dagga Couple: Let's talk about Fields of Green for ALL
  • Arne Verhoef: Meet the cannabis Plant
  • Dr Marlon Germon: The Endocannabinoid System
  • Tony Budden: Good for You, Good for the Planet
  • D. Donald Abrams: Cannabis in Cancer Care
  • Shaun Shelly: SA Drug Policy - Impacts & Challenges for Communities
  • Prof David Nutt: Putting Science at the Heart of Policy Decisions on Cannabis and Other Drugs
  • Paul-Michael Keichel: Cannabis & Science – A Joint Venture
  • Advocate Don Mahon: An Advocate's Perspective on Public Interest Litigation
  • Dr Ethan Nadelman: Ending the War on Drugs.

After a brief introduction from the organisers, the convention got underway by starting off with presentations into the basics of the plant and its various components. Biologist Arne Verhoef formed a foundation understanding early on for the topics to come throughout the day. This seemed to be an appropriate given the lack of formal or official information beyond the fundamental basics of anti-drug campaigns. Although it was an occasionally light-hearted sort of Cannabis 101 class, it set a sufficiently formal tone from the get go that it would not be a day of celebrating or reinforcing old clichés as the audience was eager to finally hear the rational side of cannabis and its role within society.

Dr Marlon Germon then explained the intricacies of the human endocannabinoid system along with its relevance in the dynamics of health and wellbeing in more depth. It was an essential and took am in depth look at how the body interacts with the plant's various components, particularly THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD ( Cannabidiol). He gave unique insight into the lack for formal research or training in the field of Endocannabinoidiology both locally and internationally, while giving a comprehensive talk on the intricacies and finer details of what is only beginning to be understood. A vital point that Dr Germon ended on was that the integration of cannabis would require both social and environmental responsibilities.

La Convención sobre Cannabis clínico 2017
Tony Budden: Good for You, Good for the Planet

Next up was Tony Budden. Best known for being the man behind the success of South Africa's leading hemp brand (Hemporium) and briefly being one of the few people who has been permitted to legally grown industrial cannabis, Tony shared his views on the option of using the plant as a preventative supplement. Before getting into the heart of his presentation, Tony felt the need to give a brief history on how the expected relaxing of local hemp laws decades previously and how this had never happened, creating a cycle of perpetual imminence that left them with no resort other than import their hemp textiles from China until such a time as hemp is not considered to be considered an undesirable dependence producing substance. He took the audience through everything from it being an easy to cultivate high nutrition food source thanks to the seeds being loaded with omega fatty acids essential for brain health to the practical aspects of incorporating it as a natural alternative in construction.

The audience gave a very warm welcome to one of the most eagerly awaited speakers of the day, Dr Donald Abrams. In what is perhaps the most contested issues regarding medical cannabis, Dr Abrams shed much need light on the fact and fictions of cannabis as a cancer treatment, as well as that it may have historically been used to treat the ailment. By giving a critical analysis of pharmaceutical treatments options versus the studies so far carried out on the various aspects of not just treating cancer, but also the symptoms or effects of disease. He cautioned that while the plants various cannabinoids certainly performed close to or as effectively as certain widely used prescription options. Nausea and pain treatment were key points of the talk with a specific focus on his research study titled Cannabis in painful HIV-associated sensory neuropathy. The conclusion of the study being that "smoked cannabis is an effective treatment in patients with painful HIV-related peripheral neuropathy, was also effective in attenuating central sensitization produced by a standardized experimental pain model and that the magnitude of pain reduction from smoked cannabis is comparable to that reported to the trial of gabapentin for painful HIV-related neuropathy".

La Convención sobre Cannabis clínico 2017
D. Donald Abrams: Cannabis in Cancer Care

Fresh from the South African Drug Policy Week that has just taken place in Cape Town, Shaun Shelly made no bones about his criticisms of cannabis lobbying groups that fall short of calling for decriminalizing all drugs. This is largely due to his vast experience in on the ground work with substance use and abuse in disenfranchised communities. Telling the story of the street living heroin users, methamphetamine addicted gang members, transgender people and sex-workers who are victims of their past and their futures. Shaun promoted a message of "Support, don't punish" in what was a very real dose of how being an illicit drug user segregates people from receiving access to desperately needed health care services and protection from victimization. Striking right at the heart of the bigger picture Shaun expressed that the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis may provide a gateway to the need for broader drug policy reform.

Professor David Nutt then took to the stage and changed tack slightly from the so far very medical orientated nature of the day's talks. Taking the audience through how his views regarding the proportional harms of substances and how laws are not equally measured or applied was a key point on how Prof Nutt had been sacked for not following the United Kingdom governments political line and maintaining cannabis prohibition. While highlighting the obvious roll of alcohol in society and the often much more relaxed approach by various governments, in large part due to massive lobbying by producers, he brought of the often found hypocrisy of world leaders who have confessed to cannabis use and yet continue to maintain the status quo of treating all other users as criminals.

La Convención sobre Cannabis clínico 2017
Prof David Nutt: Putting Science at the Heart of Policy Decisions on Cannabis and Other Drugs

The convention started wrapping up with leading local advocates, Paul-Michael Keichel and Don Mahon, giving an update on the Trial of the Plant and potential public interest litigation issues; although Ethan Nadelmann made a surprise appearance in what would be an apt high note on which to end the convention. Nadelmann provided value insight into the current progress of broader drug legalisation and decriminalisation initiatives in the USA.

All in all it was a very successful event that confirmed that there is most certainly an appetite for cannabis education in South Africa.

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