Tuesday November 7, 5:11 PM
By Jo Revill, Political Reporter
Cannabis could be legalised for medicinal purposes by the end of next year, the Government signalled for the first time today.
The drug, whose legalisation has been the subject of heated controversy for years, could soon be available as a tablet or spray for patients suffering from painful chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam this morning confirmed that it might be legalised if scientific trials under way in Britain show it is safe and effective. She said: "By the end of next year these scientific results will be out and then we can make a clear evaluation in relation to its medicinal use."
Asked on Radio 4's Today programme if this meant the Government would be in a position to legalise the drug by the end of 2001, she replied: "Yes - but legalise this in the form of cannabinoids, which is a kind of derivative, so that they don't have to smoke it, they can inhale it."
Ms Mowlam, the minister in charge of drugs policy, has caused controversy in the past on this issue and today she acknowledged the Cabinet was discussing a change in the attitude to drugs as part of a wider public debate. "What is going on is not just a Cabinet discussion, what is going on is what we want to see - which is a more open discussion on the impact of cannabis."
She emphasised, however, that the Government was still tough on those who take the drug for recreational use. "Our position on cannabis has not changed," she said, adding that they were "hard on heroin, hard on cocaine and hard on cannabis." Coming on the same day as the Government's drugs czar Keith Hellawell publishes his annual report, Ms Mowlam's comments, nonetheless, mark a shift in the Government's extremely cautious position, even on the drug's medicinal benefits. Critics, including the Tories, look certain to charge that Labour is opening the door to a more tolerant approach to soft drugs.
For years experts have argued that cannabis can alleviate pain associated with nerve damage in conditions such as MS, spina bifida and spinal cord injuries. Some believe it could minimise stroke victims' brain injuries.
Trials involving 2,000 people are under way to establish a safe therapeutic dose without the "high" associated with recreational use. However, it is also known that cannabis can be highly addictive.
At the Tory Party conference last month, shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe
called for an automatic £100 fine for cannabis possession. An enormous
political row ensued and several shadow ministers admitted having smoked
the drug in their youth, forcing William Hague to rein back and consult
widely on drugs policy.