Cannabis-based medicines have proven effective against the side effects of chemotherapy. They help to relieve severe pain and are highly effective against epilepsy and other conditions. Claims, mostly anecdotal it has to be said, that cannabis oil can reduce tumours, are interesting and requires proper research and clinical trials. A more realistic claim, in the meantime, is that the substance can help relieve the extreme anxiety associated with approaching mortality. However, the psychotropic effect of the drug that induces greater calmness in the face of imminent death, is precisely that which those who are against its use want removed.
But a surprising new line of scientific inquiry has opened in a similarly criminalised area – the study of psychedelic drugs. In her fascinating book 'Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control', Barbara Ehrenreich says that unlike the 'soul' that preceded it, the self is mortal. When we are advised to 'come to terms' with our mortality, we are not only meant to ponder our corpses, but the almost unthinkable prospect of a world without a conscious me
in it. One time-honoured salve, of course, for the anxiety of approaching self-dissolution, is to submerge oneself into something 'larger than oneself' – some imagined super-being. Not much good to an atheist as Susan Sontag, 'battling' her cancer observed in her journal: 'Death is unbearable unless you can get beyond the I
Ehrenreich shows that the use of psychedelic drugs in treating anxiety, depression and the overwhelming fear of the terminally ill, is intriguing: they seem to act by suppressing or temporarily abolishing the sense of 'self'. The new research has been summarised by science writer Michael Pollan. In a typical trial, the cancer patient receives a dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in 'magic' mushrooms and then 'trips' for several hours. When the drug wears off, the patient is asked to prepare a detailed chronicle of the experience. The results are astonishing. 'People who had been palpably scared of death – they lost their fear…an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.'
Scans to localise brain activity whilst 'tripping' showed that the drugs effect is to suppress the part of the brain concerned with the sense of self – a kind of 'ego dissolution'. For example, a TV news director with terminal cancer reported during his medically-supervised psilocybin trip: 'Oh God, it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful'. He died, apparently contently, 17 months later. Now, isn't that extraordinary?
Last week a mother was convicted of mutilating her three-year-old daughter's genitals. Although female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal for 34 years, the mother is the first person in the UK to be convicted of the offence. It astonishes me that the barbaric practice of mutilating thousands of young girls every year in this country continues to grow despite the practice being internationally recognised as a violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls.
Researchers estimate that there are over 137,000 cases a year of this barbaric child abuse in England. In Scotland, there are no robust figures for its prevalence, however anecdotal evidence suggest it is a significant issue here too. It is a matter of concern that we lack data on whether women and girls in Scotland are protected.
It should be noted, according to campaigners, that FGM has continued to rise in the UK and hitherto, until last Friday, not one person has been found guilty of the offence. In France, there have been over 100 convictions. So it was very good news indeed that finally a mother (and sadly mothers are often the perpetrators) has been convicted. The woman will likely receive a lengthy jail sentence and the child has been placed in the home of a new family. But as BBC Radio 4's 'Beyond Today' programme asked, can one conviction end FGM in the UK? Why has it taken so long to get one conviction?
There is so much secrecy and shame around the practice that girls are frightened to speak out, but for campaigners, this conviction will hopefully change that – in England, at any rate. It is obvious that a multi-agency approach is required involving police, hospitals, schools and social workers, alongside raising awareness and education in our schools and communities. There is optimism that this one conviction with a custodial sentence will focus the minds of potential abusers. Let's hope so.
A dear friend gave me the book 'The Daily Stoic' for Christmas and I am thoroughly enjoying its 366 daily meditations on wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living. Featuring Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the commentary of authors Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman bring the daily insights up-to-date with anecdotes and advice. Today's meditation, for example, is 'Don't seek out strife', with a paragraph from Seneca's 'Moral Letters':
I don't agree with those who plunge headlong into the middle of the flood and who, accepting a turbulent life, struggle daily in great spirit with difficult circumstances. The wise person will endure that, but won't choose it – choosing to be at peace, rather than at war.
Hmmm. A good, timeless nugget of advice, I guess, but in truth it is a daily reminder for those who are already well on the way to finding serenity, self- knowledge and the resilience required to live well. For those of us who are mercurial, or live a life of passionate intensity most of the time, daily insights to help you focus on the things you can change, avoiding false beliefs, taking effective and responsible action in order to live a calmer life, is difficult. But my goodness, the Stoics don't half know a thing or two about clarifying the problem, even if living a stoicial life day-by-day is an uphill struggle.