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Meet Elizabeth Brice, the Disabled Activist Who Pioneered Medical Cannabis in the U.K.

Elizabeth Brice and Medical Cannabis in the U.K.

In History

Meet Elizabeth Brice, the Disabled Activist Who Pioneered Medical Cannabis in the U.K.

Meet Elizabeth Brice, the Disabled Activist Who Pioneered Medical Cannabis in the U.K.

How one activist’s search for relief from MS forged the path toward clinical trials and Sativex in the United Kingdom.

The medical cannabis movement has had many unlikely heroes. One was a middle-aged mother of two from England who set out to change the way the United Kingdom thought about cannabis — and helped make possible the launch of the world’s first cannabis pharmaceutical company while she was at it.

Her name was Elizabeth Brice and she resided in Leeds, England. Intellectually gifted, she studied the classics at Oxford University. At the age of 26, she was working as a television producer when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). For several years after her diagnosis, she was only mildly affected. She married, had two sons and tried to ignore a worsening of her symptoms, especially fatigue, which was easy to brush away as a demand of motherhood. But with time, there was no denying the MS was getting worse. She couldn’t sleep, movement was difficult, bladder control became an issue and her sight began to deteriorate. Brice began to wonder if she would be able to raise her boys.

In 1991, she read about MS and cannabis in a U.S. medical journal. She immediately asked her doctors about this possibility. Conventional MS drugs were ineffective or intolerable, so she reasoned there was nothing to lose. The doctors acknowledged that cannabis was likely to be safer than her current prescriptions. So she did what thousands of other patients have done (and continue to do): She bought cannabis illegally and recruited a friend to help her use it.

“When I did try cannabis, the physical relief was almost immediate,” she wrote in 2002. “The tension in my spine and bladder eased and I slept well. I was comfortable in my body for the first time in years.”

Elizabeth Brice

One of Brice’s doctors connected her with other MS patients who were using cannabis and she began, rather nervously, to organize her efforts. There was still a strong stigma attached to cannabis use and this concerned Brice, so she adopted the pseudonym of “Clare Hodges” and began making tentative forays into the world of cannabis politics. She had excellent instincts for gathering media and political support. An accomplished writer, she began by writing letters to members of Parliament, as well as short articles about her personal experience for newspapers.

By the summer of 1992, she secured her first radio interview and was beginning to warm to the prospect of launching a national campaign. She viewed it, at first, as a bit of “mischief-making,” but by the end of 1992, she was in touch with the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT) in the U.S. and solicited both their help and their name. In 1993, Brice established the U.K. branch of the ACT and her journey began in earnest.

For the next seven years, Brice orchestrated a media blitz that was recently analyzed by a history student from the University of Bristol named Jonathan De Oliveira. He combed the U.K. ACT archives at the Wellcome Library in London and completed his undergraduate dissertation entitled, “The ‘Devil drug […] sprouting angel’s wings’? An analysis of the U.K. Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics in the 1990s.” Through his analysis, De Oliveira discovered that “[b]etween Brice’s first radio appearance in July 1992, and March 1999, there were never more than two consecutive months without any media coverage of the ACT’s supporters.”

He concluded that through the efforts of Brice and U.K. ACT, “[m]edical cannabis use was widely destigmatised … creating a favourable environment which helped to encourage the U.K.’s first large-scale clinical trials investigating cannabis extract and subsequent development of Sativex.”

Photo Gracie Malley

Also known as nabiximols, Sativex was developed by GW Pharmaceuticals and approved for use in the U.K. in 2010. The founder of GW, Geoffrey Guy, first approached the British Home Office about conducting clinical trials with cannabis in 1994, but he was getting nowhere fast until he and Brice connected sometime in July 1997, most likely at the Therapeutic Application of Cannabinoids conference. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Guy eventually provided Brice with administrative assistance (she had been working mainly on her own) and Brice included Guy in a delegation which met with Home Office officials in December 1997.

After that meeting, less than a year would go by before Guy was granted a license to cultivate cannabis and conduct clinical trials. Thus, GW Pharmaceuticals was born and Brice would be among the first recipients of Sativex, an oral spray which did afford her some relief, although she periodically needed the supplement of natural cannabis.

Brice died in 2011 at the age of 54. The Yorkshire Post called her “tenacious, eloquent and courageous” concluding that, “Liz Brice started a campaign and saw it through to a successful conclusion that would help thousands of suffering people.”

TELL US, who is a medical marijuana advocate whose work inspires you?

Originally published in Issue 34 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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