August 17, 2003
Scotland on Sunday
MULTIPLE sclerosis sufferers are set to get painkillers made with cannabis on the NHS by the end of the year, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Tests on an oral spray called Sativex have been completed and are being reviewed by regulators. If, as expected, they rule the painkiller should be approved, the law will be changed to allow the cannabis-based drug - the first of its kind - to be prescribed by doctors.
The developers of the drug, GW Pharmaceuticals, claim trials have shown that the spray eases pain, gives MS sufferers control over their muscles and allows them to sleep. Its effects on other people who suffer severe, chronic pain are also being examined.
However, cannabis campaigner and MS sufferer Biz Ivol, last night claimed the drug was a ‘distraction’, and urged ministers to allow MS sufferers to use cannabis freely.
Hugh Henry, the Scottish deputy health minister, has told MSPs that ministers are waiting for a go-ahead from the Medicines and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which is reviewing the evidence from trials of the new drug.
If the agency gives the drug the all-clear the law will have to be amended by Westminster to allow cannabis to be processed, and the products derived from the drug to be prescribed without fear of prosecution.
The UK government has pledged to change the law quickly if the drug is approved by the MHRA.
The trials, which involved 350 people for up to two years, showed that those who used the new drug, as opposed to a placebo, experienced ‘significantly’ less pain, along with better sleep and fewer muscle spasms. It proved so popular that some of those on the trials have asked to continue taking the new drug.
Scientists have been working on isolating the key pain-relieving ingredients in cannabis in order to allow them to develop painkilling drugs without the mind-altering effects of cannabis. They managed to isolate two chemicals for use in Sativex - tetrahydrocannabinol or ‘THC’ and cannabidiol, known as ‘CBD’.
In addition to asking the MHRA for permission to market the drug, the company has also begun trials to examine whether Sativex could aid the pain of sufferers of cancer and spinal cord injury.
A spokesman for the company said: "We are preparing to act very quickly if the drug is approved. We would plan to have it available by the end of the year. It will be part of a transformation in the lives of many people who suffer from MS."
However, Ivol gave the plans only lukewarm support. She became an icon for the campaign to allow MS sufferers to be allowed to use cannabis when she was prosecuted for alleged drug supply.
Ivol was accused of supplying cannabis by baking chocolates laced with the drug and sending them to fellow MS suffers to help them cope with the pain of the disease. Last month the Crown decided to drop the case against her because she was too unwell to face trial. However, she attempted suicide as a protest against the fact that she had been prosecuted in the first place.
Speaking from her home in Orkney, she said: "While it is good to see that the authorities are finally admitting that cannabis is wonderful pain reliever, it seems very grudging, and to have been organised for the good of the drug companies."
A spokesman for the MS Society said: "If this treatment is found to be safe and effective then we would want to see it made widely available as quickly as possible. It will be a great help to many people. Unfortunately, it is not a cure and it is only part of the picture. Studies have shown that cannabis, just like other drugs, are only effective for some people."
Brian Adam, the SNP MSP for Aberdeen North, who raised the issue with ministers, said: "I welcome the fact that this product is making progress. I certainly hope it will be available by the end of the year.
"I believe that this will clarify the issues on whether cannabis should be legalised by removing the medical issue from the argument. Many of those who have argued for the legalisation of the drug have sought to hide behind the medical arguments."
Adam also highlighted worries that the drug might not be equally available to all sufferers. Another MS treatment, beta-interferon - which also eases the pain caused by the disease - was at the centre of a furious controversy in 2001 when it emerged that people in certain areas were refused the drug by their local health board on cost grounds. The cases led to a furore over ‘post code prescribing’.
MS is the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young adults, with around 85,000 sufferers in the UK. Scotland has the highest prevalence of MS in the world, with about 10,000 people affected.
It results from damage to myelin - a protective sheath surrounding nerve
fibres of the central nervous system - which then interferes with messages
between the brain and other body parts, causing debilitating pain.
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