Monday February 18, 2002
The government is clearing the way for the introduction of cannabis derivatives as NHS medicines to treat multiple sclerosis and relieve pain after operations if trials of two drugs prove successful.
The Department of Health is to ask the national institute for clinical excellence (Nice) to begin assessing next year whether the treatments are effective and worth the money they might cost the NHS. Ministers will today announce consultations on the scheme.
The painkillers might be available on prescription in 2004 or 2005 if the process of trials, licensing and NHS approval is completed on time.
One drug, cannabis-based medicinal extract, is an under-the-tongue spray being tested by GW Pharmaceuticals; the other is a tablet called Dronabinol, manufactured by Solvay Healthcare. Neither is expected to give the "high" enjoyed by cannabis smokers.
There have been anecdotal claims for years that smoking, infusing or eating cannabis can alleviate symptoms of MS including spasm, incontinence and pain.
The new drugs may also help treat nausea, leading to speculation that cannabis derivatives could provide treatments for a wider range of medical conditions.
The health analyses are being undertaken at the same time as a wider debate within government and police forces over the criminal uses of dope.
The home secretary, David Blunkett, is downgrading cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug. While it still carries a possible two-year jail penalty for possession, a softly softly approach to its use has been controversially piloted in Lambeth, south London.
There are thought to be about 85,000 people in Britain with MS, a disabling disease of the nervous system.
David Harrison, spokesman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said yesterday: "If we are in a situation where we are going to have drugs approved which look as if they have a significant effect on helping alleviate symptoms, and it has been shown they can be safely used, we would want people to have access to them as soon as possible."
But he issued a note of caution about the anecdotal evidence. "We know a lot of people who say 'cannabis is wonderful; nothing else does this job for me'. You hear less about those who try it and get horrible reactions.
"We have always said people who are using it for medicinal purposes should be treated sympathetically."
The drugs which are being tested will need to be licensed by the government's medicines control agency. But there has been criticism that Nice, which must then decide whether the NHS should support the use of the drugs, holds up the process for making drugs available after that stage.
Running its assessment in parallel to the licensing procedure for the cannabis drugs should lead to such "Nice-blight" being avoided.
The Nice assessments will begin in
April 2003 after some drugs trial results are available. Consultation on
what should be in next year's programme starts today. Treatments for dementia,
hepatitis C and leg ulcers are among others proposed by the health department.
Nice decisions only directly affect the NHS in England and Wales but it
is unlikely Scottish or Northern Ireland health authorities would refuse
to back the cannabis drugs if they were supported elsewhere.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002