Tuesday, January 5, 1999 Published at 04:07 GMT
Cannabis grown for medical tests
Cannabis could help multiple sclerosis patients
Thousands of cannabis plants are being harvested at a secret government-approved farm for use in medical research.
The Home Office has granted a licence to GW Pharmaceuticals to grow the plants, which will be used to ascertain whether cannabis can relieve pain and minimise the effects of major illness.
An initial crop of 5,000 plants was sown in August at a secure glasshouse in the south of England.
The mature eight-foot-tall plants are now being cut off just above the stem and hung up to dry before being transferred to a laboratory.
The government allowed the cannabis farm to be set up after growing evidence that the plant has important therapeutic value and could be especially useful as a painkiller and in treating illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
Eventually 20,000 plants will be cultivated at the highly secure facility, the location of which is being kept a strict secret.
Patient trials investigating the ability of cannabis to help sufferers of multiple sclerosis commence this spring. Up to 2,000 patients are expected to take part.
Dr Geoffrey Guy, chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, said: "The potential benefits of cannabis are absolutely enormous. We are only really beginning to take the blinkers off that have been on this material for the last 30 years."
Dr Guy said the first aim of his research would be to establish a safe dose to give to patients that would produce medical benefits without the "high" associated with recreational use of the drug.
Once that had been established the drug would be tested for its ability to relieve the pain associated with nerve damage in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spina bifida and spinal cord injuries.
Dr Guy also intends to test the impact of cannabis on minimising the brain injuries suffered by stroke victims, and its ability to improve sight and hearing in the blind and deaf.
The Medical Research Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society will meet next week to discuss how best research into the therapeutic use of cannabis should be carried out.
An MRC spokesman said the council expected to receive bids from researchers wanting to undertake cannabis research in time for its next funding round in March.
He said: "We are meeting to discuss how best to help these people with their applications. For any bid to be considered it must first be granted a licence by the Medicines Control Agency and be given the go ahead by the Home Office."
The cannabis being grown for the research is a potent variety yielding large amounts of "high"-inducing chemicals.
Because of its potential illegal street value the crop was guarded round the clock as it reached maturity.
The Home Office has granted GW Pharmaceuticals two licences.
One is a cultivation licence allowing the company to grow cannabis - which is normally illegal.
The other licence allows the possession and supply of cannabis for medical research.
GW Pharmaceuticals is collaborating with Dutch medicinal cannabis breeding specialists HortaPharm BV, which has extensive experience in cultivating cannabis for medical purposes.