A Drop at a Time: How Cannabis Oil Is Changing Lives of Cancer Patients in the UK
In almost every other way, it was a very typical summer day for George. A sociology scholar turned documentary filmmaker, he was out for a coffee when he decided to stop by a local health store to visit a good friend, the shop owner. Unbeknownst to him at the time, what ultimately transpired though the course of his visit would send George on an 18-month long adventure that would deeply intertwine the lives of over eight different strangers.
Shortly after arriving at the shop, a new customer walked in with a special request: cannabis oil. “When he walked in,” began George, “it crossed my mind that he had cancer. He just looked like someone who had cancer. This guy was in his late 50s and, when he asked for cannabis oil, he obviously had no idea what he was talking about.” George and the shop owner didn’t, either.
Given the strong support of medical cannabis in the US, most Americans would not be surprised by the request for cannabis oil. George, however, lives in the United Kingdom, where citizens still face harsh penalties for growing and possessing cannabis. Unlike the US, Canada, and other European countries where cannabis policy has only become more liberal over the past few years, marijuana policy in the UK has actually regressed.
Under UK drug law, various illicit substances are placed into different classes depending on how hazardous they are to your health. For a short period of time (between 2004 and 2009), cannabis was classified as one of the least harmful substances, earning a Class C ranking. Class C placement means that those caught in possession of the herb will face a maximum two years in prison.
Though a Class C penalty for cannabis seems harsh, marijuana’s brief stint in the lowest rung of the UK’s classification system represented a small moment of tolerance by the British government. Yet, unfortunately, the decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug was made again in 2009, alongside substances like codeine and amphetamines. Under Class B restrictions, any person caught growing or in possession of cannabis in the UK (with the exception of foreigners with a medical prescription obtained in elsewhere in Europe) faces a fine and/or up to five years in prison.
So, when a cancer patient walked into a local health shop looking for marijuana oil, it wasn’t a surprise that neither George nor the shop owner understood exactly what he was talking about.
“As his story came out, we found that he had lung cancer,” said George. “It had spread from his lungs to his hips, then to his bones, and to his neck. He had a lump under his skin. He couldn’t really walk, he was on crutches. After he had been through two bouts of chemotherapy, he had been told by the doctors that they weren’t going to offer him anymore.” In his trip to the health shop, this man was by all accounts trying to find the last medicine that may extend his life.
The man’s plight spurred George and the shop owner to investigate. What exactly is cannabis oil and why did this man believe it would have an impact on his cancer? Like most resourceful people, George took to the internet. He was shocked at what he found.
“It was overwhelming. It was almost like this white noise of information.” Not long after beginning his search, George stumbled upon the rising swarm of research that suggests cannabis may be an effective tool for reducing tumors and combatting cancer. As recently as 2013, studies completed at the Compultense University of Madrid have found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) actually causes cancer cells to auto-digest in animal models, thereby drastically reducing tumor size and prevalence.
While there is a well of information on the subject found in various academic journals (there is even an annual international convention on cannabinoid medicine where doctors and researchers present their findings), most of this research is under-publicized and remains in the form of difficult-to-understand scientific language. Yet, at the same time, many people find it hard to give legitimacy to the waves of anecdotal information that claims cannabis is effective for everything from phantom limb pain to cerebral palsy.
Enter Bud Buddies: Project Storm.
It only took one patient to inspire George to reach out to Jeff Ditchfield and Bud Buddies, a UK organization that gives cannabis oil to patients completely free of charge and teaches patients how to make it themselves. Cannabis oil, also known as Rick Simpson Oil, is an essential oil extracted from the cannabis plant which can be taken orally, giving patients the benefits of active cannabinoids while avoiding the side effects of smoking the plant. Patients, however, still experiece the psychoactive effects of the plant with cannabis oil, causing some to opt for oils made with high CBD strains.
Merging both his filmmaking talents and the infrastructure Bud Buddies had already created, Project Storm was put into action. Project Storm is a documentary which follows the lives of four adults and two children with terminal cancer on their quest to find a medicine to prolong their lives after traditional treatment has failed. Given that the UK has such a strict policy when it comes to cannabis, Project Storm aims to give British audiences a different understanding of the plant. In the film, the viewer is taken everywhere from cannabis laboratories to grow houses and patient homes to give audiences the most comprehensive view of the cannabis world possible.
“At the moment in the UK,” George explained, “the cannabis debate is not a vote winner. There’s not enough public opinion to actually affect legislation. Once there is a unified voice and it’s quite clear that the public feels a certain way, then you’ll start to win votes.”
George and the Bud Buddies team hope to begin changing minds about cannabis by showing the uphill battle faced by everyday citizens when trying to gain access to medical resources which seem to be gaining legitimacy almost everywhere except the UK.
“Why is this not public knowledge? Why are people not standing up in arms screaming for this, demanding it?” George asked. “With Project Storm, we’re aiming to capture the attention of people like you and me. People who, when they look at this documentary, see members of their own family. You’re going to see a man who is like your father or granddad. You’re going to see Reka, a mother of two in her forties. She’s got bowel cancer and has a less than 5% chance of being alive in two years. You are going to see people go through the experience of cancer.”
Not only is this type of activism extremely powerful, it gives the viewer a very intimate understanding of the current dilemma the terminally ill face in Britain. Project Storm doesn’t seek to simply provide viewers with more anecdotal or scientific information that may only further the confusion about medicinal cannabis. Rather, it explores the science, research, and history that have all contributed to our complicated understanding of the cannabis plant. It’s an appeal to human understanding and compassion.
“If you’re dealing with people who are dying of cancer and something that they believe is going to save them, you have a responsibility in terms of being objective. I can’t put out a film that’s going to inspire false hope.”
Though Project Storm is far from complete, George and those involved in the project have already been deeply impacted by the film. The Project Storm team has not yet done any formal press releases, but donations from supportive Britons have already been trickling in. “This isn’t about money,” said George. “It’s about maximum impact.”
While the efficacy of this project is yet to be determined, one thing is certain: one man’s passion has already touched the lives of several people searching for just a little more time on this earth.