More MS news articles for Jan 2002

British doctors back use of cannabis

Wednesday, November 19, 1997 Published at 16:02 GMT

Britain's doctors say drugs extracted from cannabis should be legalised. In a report, the British Medical Association says chemicals found in the plant can relieve pain in people suffering illnesses like multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

The publication is in line with the BMA's policy on legalising certain cannabinoids - the psychoactive chemical compounds found in cannabis - for wider medicinal use, and sets an agenda for taking the necessary legal steps to develop cannabis-based treatments.

Cannabis was first recognised as medically beneficial 5,000 years ago in the reign of the Chinese emperor Chen Nung, for malaria, constipation and even absent-mindedness. In every part of the world cannabis has been used to treat a wide variety of health problems.

The BMA report concludes that cannabis is useful for relieving the wasting that accompanies Aids by encouraging the appetite, treating glaucoma, promoting sleep. It also relieves chronic pain, muscle spasm in multiple sclerosis, asthma and epilepsy. Many doctors consider marijuana effective in treating nausea brought on by chemotherapy.

The active chemicals in cannabis affect many parts of the central nervous system; they may produce a range of reactions, including muscle relaxation and mild euphoria. Several areas of the brain are sensitive to the active chemicals in cannabis, some of which control arm and limb movement.

Although much of the evidence about the medicinal benefits of cannabis is anecdotal or based on small studies, synthesised drugs that are legally prescribed to treat these conditions produce side-effects which can be physically unpleasant. The report suggests that cannabinoid-based treatments would not cause such side-effects, and there is growing evidence from patients that cannabis provides the only relief from some of the more unpleasant symptoms of MS, spinal diseases, cancer, and arthritis.

However, the political side-effects of medical legalisation of cannabis could be discomforting. It is classified along with LSD and ecstasy under Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971, as having no therapeutic benefit. Heroin and thalidomide, Schedule 2 drugs, are considered medically acceptable for pain relief and can be prescribed by a doctor.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, recently reiterated his opposition to any move to de-criminalise 'soft' drugs and public opinion appears to be on his side. According to a MORI poll taken the day after the general election, only 21% of respondents supported cannabis de-criminalisation, compared to 49% against and 30% 'don't knows'.

Cannabis and its derivatives cannot be prescribed by doctors, or dispensed by pharmacists, and can only be possessed for research purposes with a Home Office licence. The BMA regards further research into the use of cannabinoids as essential in order to establish optimal doses, and methods of administration.

Although the current BMA policy concerns legalising cannabinoids for medicinal and research use only, it might prove difficult to police the use of prescribed cannabis and ensure that it does not end up being used for recreational purposes. However, the Association does not support prescription of the drug in cigarette form, the most common form of recreational consumption.

Regulations concerning the use of cannabis have not just restricted the accumulation of scientific evidence about its effects, according to the report. They have also forced otherwise law-abiding citizens to resort to the illegal use of cannabis to alleviate distressing symptoms inadequately controlled by other drugs.

The BMA suggests that while research is underway, the police, courts and other prosecuting authorities should be aware of the medicinal reasons for the unlawful use of cannabis by those suffering from certain medical conditions for whom other drugs have proved ineffective.

Danish hospitals are already treating patients with both natural and synthetic cannabis in large scale treatment programmes. Cannabis in pill form is administered to Aids and cancer patients and, according to Dr Erik Sandberg, Chief Physician at Esbjerg Central Hospital, the results are good. He claims that cannabis reduces sickness, stimulates the appetite and increases his patients' well being and will to live.

In November 1996, voters in Arizona and California approved controversial measures that would allow people to grow and smoke small amounts of marijuana legally on their doctor's orders.