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Remedicalizing Cannabis | Review

Remedicalizing Cannabis: Science, Industry and Drug Policy‘ is a book by Suzanne Taylor, a research fellow in the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It’s part of the ‘Intoxicating Histories’ series, which includes a book we reviewed before on The Green Lens, called ‘Taming Cannabis‘. I’d like to thank McGill-Queen’s University Press for the hardback review copy. The publisher describes the book as ‘demonstrating the important roles of changing scientific knowledge, expert advice, industry, clinical trials, and patient activism.’

I will admit, it is a book that took a long time for me to get through – it’s not really a book you can casually dip in and out of. It’s an information-heavy book that requires your undivided focus. First impressions-wise, the book is very much geared towards academics – it presents everything chronologically in a rather formal, clinical tone. ‘Remedicalizing Cannabis’ focuses mainly on cannabis debates in the United Kingdom, but naturally it includes international discourse and collaborations as well. Taylor intersperses her book with quotes from eminent figures such as the late Professor Raphael Mechoulam (the first person to isolate THC), helping the unfolding developments (and regressions) feel that bit more personal and human beyond cold, hard facts.

The author provides a fairly balanced representation of views from all involved in cannabis research and policy – from neurologists and psychiatrists, to pharmacologists, drug policy makers and patient activists. Crucially, she emphasizes the vital role patient activists can and do play in influencing breakthroughs in research and expanding medical access. The importance of ‘lay knowledge’ is highlighted – common intellectual knowledge about cannabis that people passed down, before it was ever considered for pharmaceuticals. Starting in the early 1960s, Taylor describes the struggle scientists have had making cannabis-based medicines for specific ailments at a standardized dosage, all while research of this highly-complex plant has been continuously restricted.

She illustrates how modern medicine was focused for decades on single-chemical-entity and synthetic drugs, before botanical medicines started to gain a resurgence in popularity again in the late ’80s. Such single-entity drugs are often referred to as ‘magic bullets’, designed to work directly on a single source of pain. With this fixation in mind, Consultant psychiatrist Philip Robson of Oxford University described how difficult conducting the CUPID (Cannabinoid Use in Progressive Inflammatory Brain Disease) trials were, in 2005: “One of the many great strengths of cannabis is its breadth of effect against a range of symptoms… Unfortunately, the more you spread your target in a clinical trial, the harder it is to get a statistically significant result… [regulatory authorities] are looking for specific indications of drugs… the nearer you can get to a magic bullet, the better. Cannabis is not a magic bullet. That breadth of effect which is so valued by patients with multi-symptom disease such as multiple sclerosis or HIV/AIDS has been a handicap in getting it through the trials.”

This book is a thorough historical account of the modern cannabis debate, showing how international treaties and laws can blur the lines, resulting in cannabis being classed as both an illicit drug and a licit medicine. Each chapter ends with a ‘Conclusion’ section to summarise what you’ve read, which is a good thing, because there were definitely a few chapters I struggled to remain engaged with. There is also a ‘Conclusion’ chapter for the whole book, focusing on the primary topics explored, such as ‘Delivery Systems’ and ‘Clinical Trials’. The ‘Abbreviations’ list preceding the ‘Introduction’ chapter is a handy reference point for the many agencies, councils, committees and institutes you will encounter throughout the book. What’s my verdict? If you’re studying the regulatory battles of cannabis against a backdrop of prohibition, chances are this book will be a valuable source of historical facts and insights. But if you’re looking for a more casual read to breeze through, this in-depth book may not be for you.

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