12:00 - 11 July 2003
Multiple sclerosis patients in Staffordshire and Cheshire have completed a research project which could force the Government to make cannabis legal for sufferers all over the UK. They are under the care of the University Hospital of North Staffordshire which is one of six centres in Britain leading the study to see if the banned drug can ease their pain.
For the past year, 19 patients have been taking up to 10 capsules a day without being told if they contain the drug or a placebo - a substitute with no active ingredients.
Doctors examined the "guinea pigs" every few weeks to look for any improvement in symptoms such a muscle stiffness and lack of movement.
Now the trial has ended, the results from all the lead centres - plus 24 smaller hospitals involved - are being collected and analysed by experts behind what is the first research of its kind.
They will be double-checked by objective referees before being published towards the end of the year.
MS sufferers have long admitted illegally buying cannabis from dealers because they are convinced it brings relief.
But until now all the evidence has been anecdotal and Ministers refused to make it available in purely medical circumstances.
Following years of lobbying by both patients and doctors, however, the Government authorised the research and allowed cannabis plants to be grown at secret locations under tight security to be given patients.
Dr Clive Hawkins, consultant neurologist at the Hartshill hospital and an adviser to Whitehall, said: "These are really exciting times and everyone is waiting with baited breath to see what answers this research brings.
"If it does produce evidence of benefits to patients, it will throw up some challenging issues for Ministers as we move into the winter.
"I am delighted this hospital and our patients have been involved in something as important and potentially historic as this."
Patients had to agree not to drive during the trial because of potential drowsiness. A Home Office licence was needed in each case and the patients carried special ID cards to protect them from prosecution for possession if stopped by the police.
They were banned from travelling abroad during the year because their criminal immunity covered only Britain.
Researcher Dr Emma Pye said: "Some people declined to take part because they feared they might have been on the placebo and so would have been taking nothing to control symptoms.
"But despite the restrictions, there was a very small drop-out rate. The patients are those with the most severe symptoms of all MS sufferers and included some in wheelchairs. They are from Staffordshire, South Cheshire and Shropshire.
"They all felt they had benefited from getting more intensive medical supervision than they would normally expect and a few said they felt spaced out without possibly knowing what group they were in."
The cannabis-takers themselves were split into sub-groups - one taking pure tetrahydrocannaboil which is its active chemical and the other given capsules with the drug in its crude form. That is to see if there are other substances in cannabis which also work.
The patients will eventually be told which group they were in.
Copyright © 2003, Northcliffe Electronic Publishing Ltd.