Saturday March 22, 2003
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The first cannabis-based prescription medicines for more than 30 years will be available in high street chemists this year, the drugs minister, Bob Ainsworth, revealed yesterday.
GW Pharmaceuticals, which was licensed by the Home Office to carry out clinical research trials on cannabis, has submitted "an extremely positive" report to the medicines control agency before final approval.
"We could be in a situation where we are able to make cannabis-derived medicines available before the end of the year," Mr Ainsworth told MPs.
The drug company has been testing an under-the-tongue spray in trials involving about 350 patients. The spray has been useful in treating multiple sclerosis and helps reduce nerve damage pain and sleep disturbance.
Additional trials looking at its effectiveness in treating pain in cancer and spinal cord injury are under way. GW says it is discussing the marketing of its new product with several drugs companies.
The main ingredient in the cannabis-derived medicines does not contain the active substance found in recreational cannabis and so patients taking the new drugs will not become intoxicated. Their prescriptions will not be subject to the international treaties banning the production and sale of cannabis.
Cannabis-based medicines were outlawed in 1968 after legislation banned doctors from prescribing tincture of cannabis which contained a high concentration of the active THC psychotropic ingredient which was popular among some recreational cannabis users. While Mr Ainsworth was able to report "really good progress" to MPs on medicinal cannabis, he was less forthcoming when challenged over new research reported earlier this week in the Guardian, which showed that as much as half the cannabis smoked in Britain may be homegrown.
Mr Ainsworth told the Commons home affairs select committee that the government would not adopt a lenient approach to those who cultivated cannabis for personal use.
"We feel that the courts should deal with that. It is down to the courts to apply their discretion. We have no intention of being more lenient on what is the production of an illegal substance," he told Chris Mullin, chairman of the committee which questioned him on the issue.
"I don't think the courts deal with a serious international drug trafficker in the same way as the people you are talking about," Mr Ainsworth said.
The minister also indicated that plans to prescribe heroin to drug addicts who do not respond to methadone treatment had run into a new problem.
He said that some supermarkets had made it clear that they would be unwilling to allow medicinal heroin to be prescribed in their new pharmacy departments.
Mr Ainsworth said he would raise the matter with the Department of Trade and Industry, which is to rule on an office of fair trading inquiry into the supermarkets' expansion into the pharmacy trade.
New Home Office guidance to doctors on prescribing heroin is to be issued
next month. One aim is to boost the number of doctors willing to treat
class-A drug addicts.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003