The story of the pharma giant and the African yam

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from William Beinart, professor at the University of Oxford. 

It was a drug produced in Nottingham in the United Kingdom that led us on a journey to South Africa to visit muthi markets, archives, herbariums and nature reserves.

We spoke with traders, healers, scholars and conservationists to learn more about Dioscorea sylvatica.

Dioscorea is a wild yam. Its name in different languages connects to its appearance – its rough skin resembles a tortoise shell. It’s known as ‘Elephant’s Foot’ in English, in isiZulu ‘ingwevu’, meaning grey/old or ‘ifudu’, meaning tortoise; in Sepedi the name is ‘Kgato’ – ‘to stamp’.

In the 1950s, the yam was heavily exploited by the British pharmaceutical firm Boots for the production of cortisone. But provincial conservation officials in South Africa fought back against the plundering of a wild plant that they recognised was in danger of being exploited to extinction.

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Radical Temperance: Conference General Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Annemarie McAllister, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire, and Pam Lock, a doctoral candidate and the GW4 Developing People Officer at the University of Bristol. They organized a conference on alcohol called Radical Temperance: Social Change and Drink, from Teetotalism to Dry January, held at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England, from June 28-29, 2018. This is their general report, with more posts to come over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

The signing of the teetotal pledge on 1 September 1832 in Preston by a group of seven men, including the social reformer Joseph Livesey, was a pivotal moment in the history of the temperance movement in Britain. Preston was thus an obvious home for the first-ever conference to bring together historians, social scientists, and third sector groups concerned about support for alcohol-free lifestyles today.  The underpinning rationale for “Radical Temperance: Social change and drink, from teetotalism to dry January,” (28th-29th June, 2018), was that, just as the total abstinence movement had originally sprung from the desire of working people for radical improvement of individual lives and of society, in the twenty-first century we are once again seeing living alcohol-free as a radical, counter-cultural choice.  This had been a project in the making for over two years, the dream of Preston academic Dr Annemarie McAllister, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), enthusiastically supported by Pam Lock, University of Bristol. At times, drawing such a varied range of delegates together did seem as impossible as the scenario of Field of Dreams (1989, P.A. Robinson). Repetition of “If we build it, they will come,” became a mantra, but to ensure that the event did succeed, considerable, real, support was provided by a team of colleagues and grants from the ADHS and Alcohol Research UK.

A diverse group of nearly sixty academics, graduate students and third-sector delegates arrived from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Denmark, Ireland and around the UK to share research and experiences, discover connections, and explore the history and legacy of the temperance movement. The conference bags included refillable eco-friendly water bottles and snap-open fans, necessary during the hottest weather Preston had experienced for many years. The latter prompted our favourite joke of the conference from drink-studies regular, Phil Mellows who began his talk on the Newcastle project by declaring: “Nice to see so many fans in the audience.”  

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Forces of necessity: The role of lay knowledge and advocacy in the re-medicalization of cannabis, 1973-2004

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Suzanne Taylor, Research Fellow at the Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and is based off of her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, held at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on April 19-20, 2018. In it, she explores the role of lay knowledge and social activism in transforming cannabis into a legitimate medical substance from the 1970s to today. 

The problem:

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Alfie Dingley, the face of medical cannabis in the UK

In March 2018, the case of Alfie Dingley, a six year old boy with epilepsy, hit the headlines as his mother campaigned for access to cannabis oil to help alleviate his seizures. [1] But what was the background to activism for access to cannabis on medical grounds? When cannabis-based medicine was withdrawn in the UK in 1973 it appeared that cannabis’s career as a medicine had ended, but, even as cannabis became regulated solely as an illicit drug, it was being re-medicalized.  Within ten years of cannabis tinctures’ removal, synthetic cannabis-based drugs entered the clinic. However, these drugs caused serious side effects, were expensive and difficult to access, and so were little used. In the UK in the late 1990s the development of a cannabis-based drug using extracts from cannabis appeared to offer a potential way forward, and in 2006 the Home Office licensed GW Pharmaceuticals’ drug, Sativex, on a named-patient basis but it has not been widely available.  In 2015 the report Regulating Cannabis for Medical Use in the UK claimed that British patients were “suffering unnecessarily” and argued for the rescheduling of cannabis to enable its prescription and facilitate research.[2]

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Dr. Suzanne Taylor presents her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, April 20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

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THE FUTURE OF UK MEDICAL MARIJUANA REMAINS BLURRY BUT THERE ARE LESSONS TO TAKE AWAY FROM CANADA

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is cross-hosted at Points and Cannabis Life Network. Contact author Lucas Richert at lucasrichert@strath.ac.uk.  From 2014–2016, Canadian health authorities were forced to address the issue of medical marijuana, even as activist groups and industry sought to influence the decision-making process and its place in the medical marketplace. First, the system was privatized, …

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Local vs. National Alcohol Policy: The UK Edition

Virginia Berridge, a professor of history and director of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently alerted Points to a new briefing her organization published earlier this year. “Local and National Alcohol Policy: How Do They Interact?” is a concise and useful treatise on the difficulties of integrating local and national alcohol policies in the United Kingdom, with resonance for American scholars and those doing transnational work.

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