Pubdate: 14 Jan 1999 Source: Daily Mail (UK) Copyright: 1999 Associated Newspapers Ltd Website: Contact: Pubdate: 12 Jan 1999 Author: David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent


The legalisation of cannabis moved a step closer yesterday as doctors announced details of the first medical trials for the drug.

Over the next three years, 900 sufferers of multiple sclerosis and post-operative pain will be given regular doses of cannabis through an inhaler or as a pill.

If the drug is shown to ease the volunteers' symptoms without causing side effects, doctors could be prescribing cannabis pills to some of Britain's 85,000 MS sufferers within five years.

The move to legalise cannabis for medical treatment was welcomed by patients, who claim thousands take the drug illegally to ease the symptoms of MS.

One drug company - GW Pharmaceuticals - has already been granted Home Office permission to grow cannabis for medical purposes.

Its first crop of 5000 plants was sown last August in a secret greenhouse in the south of England and is now ready for harvest.

The company will eventually grow 20,000 plants at the site, which is being guarded round the clock. The plant - a member of the hemp family - contains chemicals which can numb pain, easing the aches and spasms associated with MS. Cannabis is also used by some epilepsy sufferers.

The 8 foot-tall plants will be chopped off just above the stem, hung to dry and then ground up.

For the tests, which could begin within a few months, the powder will be made into capsules, or given to patients using an inhaler.

Professor Tony Moffat, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, believes the trials will prove cannabis has medical benefits.

"Although trials into the therapeutic use of cannabis and cannabinoids - the active chemicals in cannabis - have taken place in the past, they have never been accepted by the World Health Organisation as proof," he said.

He aid a sufficient number of patients would participate in the scientifically-based trials to determine cannabinoid effectiveness for the first time.

Some of the volunteers - made up of 600 with MS and 400 suffering from post-operative pain - will take cannabis oil, while others will be given a placebo.

Their health will be studied for up to two years by researchers led by experts at Imperial College, London.

If the test results are accepted by the World Health Organisation, it would pave the way for the Government to reclassify cannabis, making it legal when prescribed by doctors but illegal for recreational use.

A recent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report backed the medical use of cannabis, a Class B drug.

The British Medical Association has also supported calls for the drug to be put through clinical trials and made available on prescription.

Writer Sue Arnold, 56, uses cannabis to relieve a hereditary eye condition that has left her almost completely blind.

She said a pill version of the drug could help thousands.

"For me it is beneficial," she told the BBC yesterday. "For MS sufferers it is beneficial, so why not if it does relieve pain and spasms? As soon as you take a joint they go and you feel better and you are guaranteed a good night's sleep."

The Multiple Sclerosis Society which has called for clinical trials, welcomed yesterday's launch of their details.

British doctors were allowed to prescribe cannabis until 1973, when it was removed from a list of prescription drugs that still includes heroin and morphine.