Mary Biles has taught English in Spain, worked as a television researcher and producer and in complementary health.
But, as she tells Jane Hall, it is her current role as one of Europe’s leading medical cannabis writers and educators that she is most passionate about.
“STEVE Jobs once gave a really great presentation in which he talked about trusting that all the dots in life join up and make something that is bigger and greater.
“My life has been full of very random dots. I studied politics, I worked for 12 years in TV production, got quite burnt out and had a complete career change and retrained as a complementary therapist, and then, I don’t know if I get this sort of seven-year itch or get to a point where I long for something new, but I had a complete life change and went to Spain.
“In my early 20s I had taught English as a foreign language in Madrid, and I had this longing to go back to Spain, so I ended up in Seville for what was going to be a year and ended up being 10!
“I began writing a blog about Seville, which became quite popular, and started doing other non-Seville stuff for the likes of the BBC, and then during that time I became interested in plant medicine, more the psychedelic kind if I’m honest.
“I wrote something for CNN about Ayahuasca, because there is quite a vibrant scene in Spain, and that was kind of the turning point, really, when all the little dots started to come together in my life.”
Mary’s Cannabis Journey
Mary Biles is describing how she went from working in TV to being a leading medical cannabis journalist and podcaster who has made it her mission to destigmatise and educate not just the public, but healthcare professionals too, about probably the world’s most misunderstood plant.
She was in her mid-40s when, just as Steve Jobs had suggested in his now famous 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, the seemingly random dots that had seen her employed as an educator, in the media, and as a complimentary therapist, converged and a new door opened onto the world of cannabinoids – in particular CBD, European cannabis research and the endocannabinoid system – that made use of all her hard-won skills.
Her journey into cannabis was more than just an association of ideas, however. As often happens, she reframed her life after coming face-to-face with the trauma many terminally ill patients are forced to endure in their final days.
“The mother of a very good friend of mine in Spain had pancreatic cancer and she had had all the treatments and she was dying,” Mary recalls. “But she really didn’t tolerate morphine very well, and she was really struggling to control her pain.
“She had lost her lucidity, she had very little quality of life, and her family, with the help of the family doctor, managed to find a legal loophole – as cannabis certainly wasn’t legal in Belgium where she was living – to prescribe cannabis oil as a palliative treatment.
“It just allowed her to actually live rather than just suffer the last few weeks of her life. She wasn’t in pain, she completely recovered her lucidity, she had a little bit of appetite, she could enjoy the time she had with her family, and equally they could enjoy the time they had with her.
“It meant that she could pass with some dignity. That is what I saw; it actually gave her dignity. Dying with dignity and having a good death is something that I have always felt very strongly about.
“I remember the scene completely. I was in my kitchen in Seville with my friend, and she was telling me all this, and I was just so incensed. I just couldn’t believe it. I had this anger inside of me that millions of people, without even knowing the other therapeutic benefits and other areas of research that show that it does have anti-tumoural potential, were being denied this as a palliative treatment.
“I just promised there and then that I was going to do something about it.”
A week later she found herself attending a hemp fair in Seville.
“These type of events have a kind of recreational cannabis focus, but there were a couple of CBD companies, one of which was quite a well-known pioneer of the European industry called Endoca.
“It just happened that the founder’s mum was there on this stand, and we just really got on. We chatted about me being a writer and the piece I’d done on Ayahuasca, and there was a moment where there was an acknowledgement because she had some experience of it as well. Two weeks later I was working full-time for Endoca as their main content writer.
“The next thing I knew, I was immersed in the cannabis world just trying to get my head around what is quite a complex area. I was thankful that I had a background in complementary therapy as at least I had some advantage.
Driven To Fight Injustice
“I completely immersed myself in understanding the endocannabinoid system and the research that was going on at the time. I had a lot of free rein, so I could pretty much write what I wanted.
“So I was interviewing scientists – and this was at a time before there was so much regulation. What I was writing would not be allowed anymore because it was about research and talking about health conditions. Now, particularly if you are a compliant company, that’s no longer on the table.
“That was it. That is how I came into this world. It wasn’t from a personal experience of my life being transformed by cannabis, but it was seeing someone who could die with dignity. That was enough, because I have always felt very strongly about injustice.
“It really felt like the stars aligning, that there was something bigger than myself listening to my plea, my promise, that I was going to do something in my own small way about changing what is a huge injustice as I see it.”
In a few short years, Mary has risen to be one of the top Europe-based medical cannabis writers – a position that was cemented when publisher Harper Collins asked her to write The CBD Book: The Essential Guide to CBD Oil.
Aimed at the consumer, it wades through the research and explains in layman’s terms what CBD is, the conditions it can help, how it can be used, and the best way to administer it. There are case studies to illustrate some of the incredible stories around CBD.
Published in summer 2020, Mary describes it as giving the consumer a chance to see past “the smoke and mirrors”, and reflects the changing attitude – albeit small – that society has towards what has for decades been regarded as a taboo area.
Commonly used to treat a myriad of ailments for thousands of years, Mary says it was the Prohibition era that sounded cannabis’ death knell – although it was still prescribed in the UK until the 1960s.
“It dovetails with the development of the pharmaceutical industry, which has got a stranglehold on drug development and use, and now the long tradition of botanical medicine has been forgotten and negated. It has been supplanted by the pharmaceutical model where the single molecule synthetic is better, and we are missing a massive trick.
“I do believe than when someone becomes a doctor, or a nurse, or a health professional, they do go into it to help people, so I hope and I trust that at some point the evidence will be such that there will be a ground swell in favour of cannabis and that they will start to investigate for themselves.”
Mary currently writes for Project CBD, a Californian-based non-profit dedicated to promoting and publicising research into the medical use of CBD and other components of the cannabis plant in a common sense way. Part of the group’s remit is to update consumers, patients and clinicians on developments in cannabis science, therapeutics and political economy.
She is also the chief editor at CPASS (Cannabis Patient Advocacy and Support Services). Its work includes educating and training nurses about how best to support patients who are using medical cannabis.
CPASS holds regular Multi-Disciplinary Team sessions focussing on the application of cannabis medicines in chronic pain, mental health, palliative care and oncology, neurological disorders and women’s health.
Can Mary see a time when cannabis will have lost its stigma and been brought back into the medical fold?
In November 2018 the Government announced changes to the scheduling of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act 2001, which moved it to from Schedule 1 where it was labelled as of no medical value, to Schedule 2, where specialist doctors were allowed to prescribe it.
It gave hope to thousands of people with chronic illnesses. The reality has been somewhat different, with only a handful of people prescribed cannabis on the NHS. There are still only two cannabis-based products – Sativex and Epidiolex – that have been licensed for use in England for epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Mary says: “I think by our very nature we are very cautious in the UK, particularly the professional bodies representing doctors and all the rest of it, but I think as more evidence is gathered, based on the fact that morphine does originate from poppies, it’s possible that prescribed medication can become a medicine, a pharmaceutical medicine.
“I guess the big fear is, and this is something that is a concern and a worry for patients in particular and doctors, is the pharmaceuticalisation of cannabis.
Education Is Key
With the need for patenting, if there is the big investment from the pharmaceutical industry, obviously it is going to be in things that they can get some return on, so ultimately what it may mean is that there will be cannabis-based medicines that have been approved but are synthetic, for example.
“There is plenty of research going on into synthetic cannabinoids and different synthetic drugs that interact with the endocannabinoid system, the physiological system that is responsible for the action of cannabinoids.
“I have heard this said before that if something isn’t called cannabis, which would be the case I’m sure with these pharmaceutical cannabis-based drugs – and you have Sativex and Epidiolex which you wouldn’t know from those names are from cannabis – that, that is ultimately the direction that it will go in.
“But I hope that if you don’t want to get your pharmaceutical cannabis-based drug from your GP and you are still wanting whole plant cannabis oil, that it will still also be available through private clinics etc.
“I think we are a long way-off it just being another medicine, however, because the stigma is so ingrained, and there isn’t the education, but that is what I am involved with and what I am trying to do – educate people.”
The CBD Book: The Essential Guide to CBD Oil by Mary Biles costs £12.99 and is available from all good bookshops or Amazon.
Mary hosts a regular Podcast, Cannabis Voices, where she speaks to patients, carers, cannabinoid scientists, doctors and activists about the healing power of the cannabis plant. https://cannabisvoices.buzzsprout.com/