BlogReleaf: Removing the stigma around medical cannabis

Releaf: Removing the stigma around medical cannabis

12 min read

Editorial Team

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The wait is over, you finally have a legal medical cannabis prescription. For some, this will have been a long wait, for others who have only just become aware of the benefits of medical cannabis, it is the start of a new journey. At Releaf we want you to feel confident about being a legal medical cannabis patient which is why we want to take a moment to talk about cannabis stigma. 


The joy of finally getting a legal cannabis prescription

As time moves on, understanding about the use of cannabis as a medicine has increased, but this hasn’t reached as far and wide in UK society as needed. Releaf’s surveys have revealed that only around 34% of the UK population know medical cannabis is legal, yet half the population could be eligible. This means there is much work to be done to help people learn about the legal change and routes to access. 

Unfortunately because not everyone knows the law has changed, there may be people that think negatively about cannabis and those that take it. The truth is some people need an update when it comes to their cannabis knowledge. 

But it’s difficult to apportion blame. It's natural to trust the information provided by those in authority. What we notice though is that not everyone hears about the news updates, newly published studies or the inspiring stories about how cannabis has turned someone's medical condition around and even brought them back from the brink. 

Discrimination aimed at a patient with a medical cannabis prescription is unacceptable. But the truth is, most people who think like this simply have not been educated about the legality and benefits of medical cannabis. 

Why is there a negative stigma around medical cannabis use?

There is a negative stigma around cannabis in the UK because it has been a controlled substance in the UK since 1928, meaning only doctors could prescribe it. In 1961 the United Nations tightened international regulations on the sale and transport of drugs including cannabis to regulate the production, transport and sale of it. In 1971 the Misuse of Drugs Act came into effect creating a set of criminal sanctions for people found in possession, trafficking, or supplying cannabis or products containing it. The introduction of this law also prohibits doctors from prescribing it for the first time. In 2018 after campaigning by patient groups, the Home Office legalised cannabis as a prescription medicine. 

Because it was illegal to possess or trade cannabis in any manner for such an extended period over the last hundred years, a negative stigma associating cannabis with criminality developed. For a long time, drug use in general has been stigmatised by society as any criminality and public shunning is seen as a way to deter people from partaking in frowned upon activities. It creates an automatic judgement and prejudiced assumption that anyone who uses cannabis must be a criminal and therefore - bad. 

To make things worse, the media have used their influence and power to engage in targeted attacks on cannabis with the knock-on effect of readers taking on prejudice against people who use cannabis. It is only in the last decade that scientific understanding of cannabis has increased allowing news stories to finally counter some of the inaccuracies that have been told. 

Legal status of cannabis

The UK Home Office legalised medical cannabis on November 1st 2018. There were very specific rules on how this law would play out and the bureaucracy that it would involve to provide and access it. It remains tightly regulated and strictly controlled. 

Now that cannabis is a legal medicine it elicits questions about the way the public have been nudged to react to its use. Neighbours, who have been encouraged by the press to call the police if they smell cannabis, could inadvertently be calling the police on a patient that is legally prescribed medical cannabis flowers. The police must use their powers of investigation and discretion to determine if action needs to be taken. 

There are two main differences between legal and illegal cannabis. The first is the permission in the form of a prescription to possess it; second is the source - it must have had permission in the form of a licence to be grown. There is a way to track and trace every stage of the product’s life and who has been in control of it with multiple analytical tests being performed that record and check the potency and purity. 

The smell of cannabis

The smell of cannabis is often a point of contention. To some the smell is associated with illegal activity and criminality, provoking the idea that people in the vicinity are up to no good and that you need to be cautious. To others who take cannabis as a medicine, the smell is associated with health and feeling better. 

Some people genuinely do not like the smell of cannabis, which can be sweet but acrid and sometimes skunky. This smell is due to the presence of aromatic molecules called terpenes, thiols, aldehydes, flavonoids and esters. Whilst they have a particular scent they also have modulating effects on the cannabinoids. 

The smell of cannabis when burnt will linger much longer than cannabis vapour from a vaporiser and without the presence of smoke the smell is not as intrusive. 

How can we remove the stigma around medical cannabis?

We can contribute to removing the negative stigma around medical cannabis by putting a new face on it and doing some of the following things:

  • Talking openly about having cannabis as a medicine
  • Telling people why it works for you compared to other medications
  • Educating yourself in the science of why cannabis works as a medicine for your condition
  • Not apologising for having cannabis as a medication 
  • Encouraging people who may be be suitable to look into the eligibility criteria for receiving a prescription

Open conversations spread knowledge, transfer understanding and create compassion and empathy. There's no need to try and force information down anyone's throat, just opening the door to the truth is usually enough for people to make their own rational decisions when presented with the evidence. 

Whilst people may have an opposition to cannabis based on their current understanding, most patients find that having a simple conversation to create a new way of thinking about medical cannabis is the solution. Mentioning things such as:

  • It's prescribed by a doctor who monitors your use and tracks your health
  • Cannabis clinics are regulated by the Care and Quality Commission and the MHRA. 
  • It's grown in lab like conditions 
  • It's tested so you know what's in it
  • Thousands of clinical studies have been conducted to show THC is safely tolerated by humans with very few adverse effects 

Show people your clinic online so they can see it's real. Most cannabis clinics are based online to help reduce barriers to access and reduce the costs of prescribing. 

Ultimately, you shouldn't need to share information about your medication or your medical conditions but engaging in dialogue about the fact you are legally prescribed medical cannabis may mitigate some potential negative reactions from people who aren't yet aware it's a legitimate treatment. 

Information for your family

Patients need to feel that their family members support their treatment so that they can move forward with their life without anything or anyone holding them back due to negative feelings about cannabis. It isn’t helpful for patients to feel that the people close to them hold a negative view of them for taking a medication that works effectively for them when so many other options have failed. Cannabis isn’t going to compromise their freedom with the law being on their side and employers need to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate employees’ medical needs. In fact there are laws like The Equality Act 2010 that protect people who are taking medication from being on the receiving end of discrimination. 

The challenges of parenting in pain. Having access to effective healthcare allows parents to take care of their responsibilities. With cannabis often reported as having fewer and less severe side effects than some other frequently prescribed pain medications, it can allow parents suffering from chronic pain to take a more active role in their children's lives.

Frequently Asked Questions: Overcoming cannabis stigma

My parents/partner are anti drugs; how do I deal with this?

“Cannabis is a legal prescription medication. It is being taken to treat symptoms under the care of a specialist doctor who monitors my care. I am pleased that you are concerned for my wellbeing but I have the right to try this medication and would like to not be judged badly for it. ”

What should I tell my younger children if they ask about my medical cannabis prescription?

“The doctor says I need to take this medicine to help me feel better. It isn’t against the law because it is given to me by a doctor.”

I am worried about what other childrens’ parents might think if they find out that I, or my partner, take medical cannabis. 

It’s not something you should feel obliged to disclose; there are probably many parents taking different medications that are also scheduled drugs. Still, if it does come up you could say;

“My doctor prescribed me cannabis to treat my medical condition because other medications haven’t worked, but this has given me my life back so I can be a better parent. I keep it out of the reach of the children and they don’t see me take it”. 

Your prescription allows you to be in possession of the cannabis your doctor has decided you should take. 

What if Social Services question me over my prescription?

Unless other evidence is presented, simply having a medical cannabis prescription does not render you incapable of looking after your children. If you are questioned by Social Services over your prescription cannabis, as a parent you should have nothing to fear.

Employment and medical cannabis

For most roles, you are not legally obliged to tell your employer that you are prescribed medical cannabis, but if you are worried about another member of staff reporting you or your manager finding out and jumping to the conclusion that it’s being used recreationally, it may be worthwhile speaking to your HR department. Not only may this mitigate any potentially negative incidents, your employer has the legal responsibility under The Equality Act 2010 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure that working conditions are suitable for your medical circumstances. Employers are obliged to make any reasonable adjustments; that may be as simple as allocating an area for you to vaporise your medication or providing the necessary breaks for you to administer your dose. 

If you operate any heavy machinery at work you must tell your employer for insurance purposes that you are prescribed medical cannabis as it could have an impact on health and safety. 

The Sankara Platform and Cannabis Industry Council have published a report on medical cannabis and employment which can be found here

Housing associations, landlords and medical cannabis. 

One of the issues that arises with patients who are prescribed medical cannabis who live in a housing association is the smell. Smells are not illegal but if another resident reports the smell to the housing association it can cause a problem because they will automatically assume it is recreational cannabis. 

Your housing association cannot terminate your tenancy for being prescribed medical cannabis but they can ask you to take measures to try and manage the smell as best as possible. Air purifiers with a carbon filter will help clean the air and reduce the smell as will putting a stopper on the inside of the front door to help prevent the vapour from leaking out into communal hallways. If there are people who already think negatively about cannabis it is good citizenship to try and be accommodating. 

If you are contacted or approached by your housing association over the smell of your medical cannabis it is best to remain calm and know that the law is on your side. Provide them with the appropriate information and tell them they are welcome to contact your clinic to confirm you are a legal patient should they have any further concerns. 

If you rent privately you do not have to tell your landlord that you have a prescription. Your landlord cannot evict you for taking your prescription medication in your home. 

Information for your GP and other health care providers. 

You may have previously spoken to your NHS GP about trying to access medical cannabis on prescription to which they will have been unable to assist. They may also hold the view that cannabis doesn’t have any medical value and have shown concern over your request. This is because NICE, the body that authorises medicines for use and funding by the NHS, has yet to approve it as a licenced medicine due to a lack of clinical evidence supporting dosage regimes for specific conditions. Keeping your GP informed about your medical cannabis prescription may help open their mind if they can see the improvement of access to regulated medical cannabis. 

Don't let the stigma surrounding medical cannabis prevent you from getting a suitable treatment. Releaf provides tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, all based on your medical cannabis prescription.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Editorial Team

Article written by the Releaf Editorial Team, a group of seasoned experts in cannabis healthcare, dedicated to enhancing awareness and accessibility in the field through their wealth of knowledge and experience.

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Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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