Monday, 20 May, 2002, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
The evidence for and against cannabis-based drugs for multiple sclerosis is to be tested by a government watchdog over the next year, it was confirmed on Monday.
The use of cannabinoids to relieve some of the symptoms of the illness is to be included in the next "work programme" of the National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE).
If the go-ahead is given, it is likely they could be available in 2004.
NICE was set up to appraise new and expensive treatments to see if they work - and are worth the money.
Cannabinoids - drugs which are derived from the cannabis plant - are under test in several clinical trials.
Relief from pain
Some MS patients already smoke the drug illegally, saying that it relieves some of the muscle stiffness and tremor which characterise the illness.
If approved as a pharmaceutical drug, it would be taken in capsule form - or as a spray under the tongue - and would probably be formulated so the patient did not experience any narcotic sensations.
The MS Society, which represents the interests of patients, welcomed the move.
A spokesman said: "Provided these treatments are shown to work in clinical trials, we are in favour of getting these drugs to patients suffering from these symptoms as quickly as possible."
Other controversial drugs are also to come under consideration from NICE.
Among these is Glivec, which may yet win approval as a therapy for some patients a form of leukaemia.
Now NICE will examine whether it could help more patients - including those with an earlier form of the disease.
A study published on Monday added weight to this theory.
It suggested that early leukaemia patients given the drug did benefit.
Other therapies included in the work programme included Mabthera for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Clopidogrel for heart patients.
Recent trials have suggested both are effective.
Health Minister Lord Hunt said: "NICE was set up to help ensure that patients have equal access to treatments which are both clinically and cost effective wherever they live and that the health service has clear evidence-based guidance on the most up-to-date ways of treating patients."
A spokesman for GW Pharmaceuticals, one of the firms funding trials of cannabinoids, said: "This is a significant step along the road towards the nationwide provision of cannabis-based prescription medicines for NHS patients."