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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 17:21 GMT


Doctors say no to legalised cannabis

Multiple sclerosis sufferers back legalised cannabis for medical use

Doctors have given a cautious welcome to calls for more research into the medical use of cannabis, but are against legalising cannabis.

Writer Sue Arnold tells the BBC's Ed Stourton why she uses cannabis for her eye condition
The British Medical Association (BMA) says it is not 100% behind a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee backing the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

The BMA, which has previously supported more clinical trials into the medical use of cannabis, says legalising cannabis is not the answer.

It believes only cannabinoids - part of the cannabis plant - should be used in medicine.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson: More work needed
Cannabinoids are the active ingredients of cannabis. The BMA says crude cannabis contains many toxic ingredients as well. It is also worried about how cannabis will be prescribed, saying that smoking the drug is harmful to health.

It wants to see the development of "targeted medicines" using cannabinoids.

Crude cannabis

Head of Health Policy and Research at the BMA, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, said: "Many people with conditions like MS use cannabis to relieve pain and control muscle spasm.

[ image: Cannabinoids should be used on MS patients, says the BMA]
Cannabinoids should be used on MS patients, says the BMA
"However, crude cannabis also has the unwanted side effect of loss of concentration which affects your ability to drive and work.

"The other side effects of cannabis are highly unpredictable, partly because it has more than 400 active ingredients in varying quantities.

"That is why we strongly believe that the development of new cannabis-based drugs is the better route forward, particularly if the drugs are to be used long-term for chronic conditions."

However, multiple sclerosis campaigners have backed the Lords committee report.

Not criminals

The MS Society says it recognises that many MS patients are already using cannabis to relieve some of the painful symptoms of MS and says they should not be treated as criminals.

[ image: MS sufferers say smoking cannabis relieves pain]
MS sufferers say smoking cannabis relieves pain
But it says only hospital specialists who are able to understand fully MS should prescribe the drug.

The society has long called for clinical trials, but it warns that these have to be as rigorous as for other medicines.

"We have been working closely with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on the development of protocols for such trials," it said.

It expects to announce details in the New Year.

The MS Society said the government needed to ensure that the same safety and quality standards should be set up for testing cannabis as are used for other drugs.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society favours research into drugs which isolate cannabinoids, but it says legalising cannabis should make medical trials easier.


Journalist Sue Arnold, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, has smoked a particular type of cannabis called Skunk.

Sue Arnold: Stoned on Skunk
"Suddenly I can see everything very, very clearly," she said. "But it was only wonderful in the sense that I could see but I couldn't register because I was stoned.

"What we need to do is separate the cannabinoid which gives that effect from the one that makes you legless."

Pot farm

The Home Office recently granted two specific licenses for a cannabis farm for medical research: one to cultivate cannabis plants and a second to store and dispense the cannabis preparations for research.

Until now, some 22 licences have been granted for research into cannabis.

The government says it will not consider legalising cannabis for medical use until clinical trials had been completed.

Until now, its line has been that the evidence in favour of the use of cannabis for medical purposes is weak.

The Lords' Committee disagrees, saying the evidence in the case of MS is "enough to justify a change in the law".


In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the oral use of dronabinol, a cannabis derivative, for people with Aids.

There is evidence that cannabis may stimulate the appetites of Aids patients with wasting disease, and prevent nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy. It may also be helpful in the treatment of the eye disease, glaucoma.

Last week, voters in Alaska, Washington, Nevada and Oregon backed calls for a legal change to allow cannabis to be prescribed by doctors for certain conditions, such as MS.

MS affects 2.5m people worldwide of whom around 1% die a year.

The disease causes the immune system to identify body cells as foreign invaders and leads to difficulties in coordination and vision.

It can eventually lead to paralysis.

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