UK set for herbal regulation? Say it ain't so!

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This Dec. 1, 2009, article at the BBC website entitled "Prince Charles: 'Herbal medicine must be regulated'" points to a potential crisis for the practice of herbal medicine in the UK. Under threat of new European Union (EU) laws scheduled to take effect in April 2011 that would restrict the prescription of manufactured herbal medicines to "statutorily regulated professionals like doctors," the Prince of Wales is urging his government to regulate herbalists, lest they be banned from practice entirely when the new laws take effect. The new laws also stipulate that the only herbal medicines that will be sold over the counter will be ones used to treat 'mild and self-limiting' conditions - basically meaning nothing worse than a cold.

Apart from the fact that this would undoubtedly cause a large legally disenfranchised body of people to seek natural remedies through illegal venues, it also would overturn a 500 year-old Commonwealth law that prohibits governmental legal restriction enabling anyone to treat patients with herbs.

Since 1542, the Commonwealth Charter of Henry VIII has guaranteed herbalists the right to practice freely throughout the Commonwealth. This law is still applied in the UK as well as its former territories worldwide such as Australia and New Zealand. In fact, many think an argument could be made that the U.S.A., as a former British colony, has a legal basis for unregulated and free practice based on the English Herbalists' Charter.

For over 400 years, this has worked pretty well with very few adverse incidents reported, especially compared to those reported about conventional mainstream medicine. Other European countries such as Germany and France have chosen to impose highly restrictive laws limiting the practice of herbal medicine to medical doctors. As a result, there is economic pressure for the UK to declare the Herbalists' Charter antiquated and to get in step with the same restrictions imposed by other European countries. This has met with stiff opposition from a well established tradition that has allowed for the comparatively unrestricted practice of herbal medicine by both lay and professional herbalists.

Aside from the many differences of language, culture and history between closely adjoining countries, the standards for the practice of herbal medicine is yet another obstacle to true union. With obvious financial advantages to globalization in respect to the EU, many of the differences between these financially interdependent countries must be resolved -- and apparently how herbal medicine is practiced and regulated is just another one of those issues. Countries such as the UK with a long history of distinctive customs and traditions encounter difficulties with conformity. For instance, while most European countries have converted their currency to the Euro, the UK still uses the pound sterling as its distinctive "coin of the realm." So far, under the Herbalists' Charter, the UK is similarly seen as 'not fully participatory.'

The upshot of all of this is an ongoing fundamental conflict as to how herbal medicine is practiced, manufactured and sold between the UK and its European Union partners.

One of my former students, John Smith, is now a professional herbalist in the UK who opposes licensure and restrictions of herbalists in that country. In discussion on this issue he recently wrote me the following:

Unfortunately, what has been happening in UK is that it was felt by the powers that be that herbal medicine either had to be regulated or banned entirely -- so herbal bodies agreed to compromise and go for self regulation (i.e. Herbal Registers). (In other words,) we'd get together to exclude non registered or unqualified practitioners and agree on what herbs could and could not be used, etcetera). This was done even though many of us saw such negotiations as a huge compromise but the lesser of two evils. Ten years of time and energy went into this regulation process internal wrangling for power and influence within the herbal and alternative medical community and discussions with the Department of Health and European Union representatives. What is happening at present is that the government has pulled the plug and left herbal medicine back at square one where herbal medical practice could be banned entirely. Prince Charles, a long time proponent of herbal medicine, homeopathy, and alternative medical practice, has chosen the path of supporting the regulated practice of herbal medicine and fights that corner.

Any decision in the EU and UK to restrict herbal medicine to licensed medical doctors would be a purely financial one with no regard for the needs of the people. At the same time it supports an already established free socialized medicine of a particular state-supported brand, administered only by licensed medical doctors.

Preserving the Tradition of Herbal Medicine

Here are three good reasons why herbal medicine should remain as unregulated as possible:

  1. The roots of herbal medicine are empirical and depend on a stream of trial and error to evolve and renew. To do this, it must remain an inalienable right to be able to access and use herbs obtained in the market, from nature and the garden, and should not be subject to highly restrictive governmental regulations.
  2. The practice of herbal medicine is its own unique methodology that only experienced herbalists understand. Because most herbs are mild and have myriad non-specific biochemical elements, best results are achieved when an assessment methodology is used that takes into account not only the presenting symptoms but the underlying causes. This is the unique strength of traditional herbal medical use and practice.
  3. Further, conventional medicine has a different focus, useful in its own way to attend to the alleviation of symptoms irrespective of wholistic considerations and of course in crisis care. But most medical doctors have, at best, an extremely limited understanding of the practice of herbal medicine.

Because of the above stated reasons, both China and India, which have long standing traditions of herbal medicine, are able to recognize professional herbalists without prohibiting the accessibility to herbs and herbal preparations and the popular practice of herbal medicine by all.

It seems either a poor compromise or simply naive for Prince Charles to promote restrictions on herbal medical practice in the UK similar to those now in effect in other European countries. The compromise, which is the financial advantage, is probably more the reason as I can't imagine that someone has not discussed these other matters with him.

Who else stands to gain from herbal regulation and restriction?

Commingled with EU financial considerations to override the UK Commonwealth law and the 1542 Herbalists' Charter is the protection and practice of healing professions. Of course this includes conventional Western medicine but also the practioners of newer recognized alternative medicine professions, such as acupuncturists, herbalists, naturopaths, and Ayurvedic and Chinese healers who have been struggling over recent years with various degrees of success to gain recognition. Despite their roots as popular unregulated healing modalities, each of these, backed by schools standing to benefit from increased enrollment, at least superficially stand to gain in restricting practice to "licensed professionals."

Historically there is nothing new in any of this motivation of protection. Since medieval times, guilds and other organizations have been established specifically for promoting the professional (i.e. financial) interests of its members. There is something gained and something lost from this. What is gained is a standing organization that can share its experience and knowledge with its members and establish a standard of practice. What is lost, of course, is the wider experience that is the result of non-members who may also practice a particular discipline or practice such as herbal medicine.

In order to safeguard its knowledge, these professional organizations developed their own language and jargon that distinguished them from the populace. We encounter this when we try to decipher the diagnostic assessments and prescriptions of medical doctors as well as the metaphorical jargon used by Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic doctors.

For example, Latin, a universal language understood by medical legal and scholarly professions across all European countries, was used this way. While at first intended for more widespread understanding and greater definition and clarity, the use of Latin as a professional language of medicine had the same effect as it did when it was used by the Church for 1,500 years where the Bible was only available to be read and interpreted by clergy: to prevent free thought.

The mid-17th century English apothecary-herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, caused a furor when he published his own translations from the Latin to the English vernacular of various herbal and medical texts of the College of Physicians. He did this so that his fellow countrymen who could not afford expensive doctors would have available to them guides for maintenance of their own health. He published his own herbal, The English Physitian (1652), arguing that "no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician," when he could obtain his herbs from the nearby countryside. Culpeper upheld medicine as a "public asset rather than a commercial secret." Since its first publication over 350 years ago, Culpeper's Complete Herbal has been reprinted as many times as the Bible. He remains a revered iconic figure for English people and herbalists worldwide.

Education, not regulation

Many will still argue that the unrestricted use of herbs and self treatment is dangerous, but the fact remains that statistics of adverse events and deaths from herbal treatments are infinitesimal compared to the estimated 400,000 people who die annually from pharmaceuticals alone, or who are otherwise injured or made sick from conventional medicine and drugs.

It is undoubtedly my personal bias that herbal medicine remain as unregulated and unrestricted as reasonable. In fact, this was my personal path of learning. As part of a counterculture seeking independence from the mainstream in all ways possible, I looked to herbal medicine first as a passionate attraction to nature and plants, and secondly for the possibilities of what it might offer as an alternative to more invasive and Western medical drugs and procedures. It was out of this need that acupuncture and herbal medicine has grown in North America since the late 1960s.

There were no official schools to turn to for an education on this continent, and if there were, I certainly did not have the financial means to afford them. So I made do at first with the scant few books that were available by Jethro Klos and a few others and tried different herbal potions on myself and members of the commune to which I belonged. Despite the limitations of this approach I learned that plants do work and found common weeds such as plantain, comfrey, mullein, goldenseal, and later echinacea to be amazingly effective.

So my career arose out of years of personal trial and effort. I eventually got a leg up when I began to find a few experienced herbalists such Norma Meyers of British Columbia and Dr. John Raymond Christopher of Provo, Utah to study from. This eventually extended to the study of Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbalism in Yunnan, China with some remarkable doctors. Through this path, I think I received a wonderful education. Certainly there were holes because of the sporadic nature of the learning process but I found that I would only learn what I could absorb at the time and gradually my understanding deepened.

To legislate and deprive others from this path of learning to me would seem a shame of the first order. I know today, that there exists a large number of herbalists living in the mountains, forests and countryside who practice with local plants in ways that are not "official" according to accepted standards of clinical Western herbalism, TCM or Ayurveda, and that the contribution of these individuals are just as important as those made by the professionals. I think that there remains a place for both lay herbalists and individuals who might follow a path similar to my own as well as those who may seek a more set curriculum leading to professional licensure.

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