Monday 14 May 2001
By David Derbyshire, Medical Correspondent
CANNABIS could be legalised for medicinal use within two years after clinical trials on patients with multiple sclerosis, cancer and arthritis proved encouraging.
Tests on 70 British patients showed that an extract of the plant sprayed under the tongue significantly reduced pain, muscle spasms and bladder problems. Because the doses used in the trials were relatively low, patients did not experience the "high" associated with smoking or eating the drug.
Large scale trials involving up to 2,000 patients are underway and should be complete by 2003. The tests are being carried out by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company licensed to grow 40,000 cannabis plants in a greenhouse at a secret location in the south of England.
Cannabis contains active ingredients called cannabinoids that can alleviate pain, reduce tremors and prevent incontinence. In the "phase two" clinical trials, which have been taking place in Oxford, Guernsey, Great Yarmouth and London, patients have been given sprays containing cannabis or a placebo.
The drug was sprayed under the tongue so that it was absorbed into the bloodstream rather than swallowed or inhaled. The applicator allowed patients to regulate their own dose . Dr Geoffrey Guy, chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, said he hoped that cannabis would be prescribed legally by 2003.
He said: "Patients are clearly gaining benefit. These results provide enough confidence for us to increase the number of trial centres and the number of patients taking part. We are seeing a significant improvement in quality of life for sufferers of a range of medical conditions."
If the final trial results are good enough, a licence would need to be approved by the Medicines Control Agency. The Government has confirmed to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee that it would be willing to amend the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act to allow the prescribing of cannabis-based medicines.
Mark Rogerson, a spokesman for GW Pharmaceuticals, said: "The important thing seen in these trials is that it can really improve lifestyle. For multiple sclerosis sufferers it helps with incontinence and pain and allows people to sleep."
The success of the trials could lead to tests of cannabis on other diseases. Some supporters of the legalisation of cannabis say it can treat depression, asthma, glaucoma, Parkinson's disease, menstrual cramps and prevent seizures in epilepsy.
Many of the health concerns surrounding the drug are focused on the toxic effects of cannabis smoke. Studies have shown that smoking three cannabis cigarettes a day causes as much lung damage as a packet of 20 standard cigarettes. But there are concerns that some of the 400 active compounds in the drug could affect concentration and memory.
Lesley von Goetz, 75, a grandmother from Dundee, is to stand for parliament for the Legalise Cannabis Alliance party.