February 8th, 2001
Cannabis will be prescribed on the NHS if trials prove the drug has medical benefits, a Home Office minister has said.
Charles Clarke said the Government would take the controversial step of changing the law to allow those with certain types of medical conditions to use the drug pending medical trials.
But he stressed the Government would not be giving the go-ahead to the recreational use of the drug.
His comments came as it was revealed the Government had turned down a police report calling for more lenient sentences for cannabis possession.
The therapeutic benefits of cannabis are being studied in two trials in England - one by the Home Office and another by a private company. GW Pharmaceutical hopes to have a licence to produce cannabis for medical use by 2003.
Campaigners have been calling for a change in the law for years, arguing that cannabis can relieve pain, especially in those suffering from diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Sufferers say they are criminalised under the current system and are forced to buy cannabis from drug dealers.
Mr Clarke, giving evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, said if the results of the two trials proved the medical benefits, then a change in the law was likely.
"If the clinical trials into cannabis are successful the Government is clear that we are willing to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow prescribing,” he said. "The Home Office and the Department of Health are very, very clear that once the trials outcomes are clear ... we will act very expeditiously that any approved treatment can be brought into circulation."
He warned that the Government would not change the law simply on the personal testament of users. "We must act on the basis of scientific tests. To get to the position of changing the law we need to have a proper scientific judgment,” he said.
Although cannabis may reduce pain, there are fears it could have serious side-effects. Recent reports have linked the drug to mental problems and depression in some users. Those who already suffer from conditions such as schizophrenia could be at risk.
Dr Brian Davis of the Medicines Control Agency Licensing Division told the committee one study had shown that cannabis had impaired the fertility of male monkeys.
"A study did show an impact on the sperm even at the lowest level set. We feel this needs to be investigated further,” he said.
No change in law
But while cannabis may eventually be legalised for medical use, penalties for its recreational use will remain.
The Government on Wednesday rejected a two-year Police Foundation inquiry which said penalties for possession of cannabis did more harm than the drug itself. It called for a wide reclassification of drugs offences.
The Home Office threw out 24 of the committee's main recommendations. They included:
would create a more effective law which enabled resources and enforcement
efforts to be targeted on the most dangerous drugs such as heroin and cocaine,
and the most dangerous activities involving them,” said Viscountess Runciman
of Doxford, chairwoman of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs