More MS news articles for August 2001

Canadian Cannabis Decision May Spark New Thinking

Tuesday July 31 7:33 AM ET
By Patricia Reaney

LONDON (Reuters) - Advocates of the medical use of marijuana got a boost on Monday when Canada became the first country in the world to allow people suffering from chronic illnesses to legally grow and use the drug.

The landmark decision puts the therapeutic use of the popular recreational drug on the world agenda and could sway other nations reviewing the use of the drug in relieving pain from illnesses such as asthma, multiple sclerosis, cancer and degenerative muscle and bone diseases.

"It is very courageous for the Canadian government to do this," Roger Pertwee, a leading expert on cannabis from Aberdeen University in Scotland, told Reuters.

"It is the first country that has legalized cannabis for medical use, so in that sense it is very groundbreaking. It will certainly make other countries take it seriously," said Pertwee, a neuropharmacology professor.

Possessing, growing and selling cannabis for recreational use is still a crime in Canada but patients whose doctors write a certificate saying they need it for medical reasons will be allowed to grow and use the drug without fear of prosecution.


Patients with chronic illnesses have been forced to either break the law to get cannabis or stick with legal drugs that may not work for them or have unpleasant side effects.

"It is very tough on people who genuinely need it and can't have it just because it is being used so much recreationally and the government is so worried about that," Pertwee said.

The Canadian decision puts it on a collision course with the United States, whose Supreme Court ruled in May there could be no exceptions to the illegality of cannabis.

The federal ruling effectively ended the legal distribution of medicinal marijuana in California and other states where it had been permitted.

Most other countries, apart from the Netherlands where its use has been decriminalized, have a similar policy.

Pertwee applauded the Canadian decision because it relieves the dilemma of patients, but he and other scientists and clinicians say problems remain with the supply, dose and delivery systems of marijuana into the body for medicinal use.


Some scientists also agree with the Canadian Medical Association, which is against the new law because it feels there is not enough scientific proof about how it works, how much should be taken or how it interacts with other medication.

Scientists who conducted an analysis of data from 39 clinical trials of cannabis reported in July that it is no better than codeine in controlling pain.

But Mark Rogerson of GW Pharmaceutical, which aims to develop the world's first cannabis-based medicines, said the Canadian decision supported arguments for the medical benefits.

"There is no doubt this demonstrates the Canadian health authorities recognizes the potential contribution of cannabis-based medicines," he said in a telephone interview.

"Anything which contributes toward putting cannabis center-stage in the medical picture, we are in favor of."

Britain's Medical Research Council is doing research into the benefits of cannabis for multiple sclerosis. The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords (upper house) has also suggested there should be more leniency in the therapeutic use of cannabis.

"There may be some countries which don't have a policy on this now which may be forced into having a policy and some of those countries may go the same route as Canada," Pertwee said.