Britain's drug regulatory authority has given the go-ahead for the first full-scale patient trials of therapeutic cannabis products, it was disclosed today.

The Phase Two trials will involve patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, severe pain and spasticity.

GW Pharmaceuticals, which has a Home Office licence to use cannabis in medical research, was given permission for the trials by the Medicines Control Agency.

The company said the trials, taking place at a number of locations, would commence "in the near future" and recruit some 2,000 patients over the next two to three years.

The first trial will be led by Dr Willy Notcutt at the Pain Relief Clinic at the James Paget Hospital, Great Yarmouth.

Dr Notcutt said: "Our aim is to test some of the claims which have been made for the medicinal qualities of cannabis in a structured clinical research programme. This is an exciting moment, and we hope very much that our findings will lead to significant improvements in the pain relief available for sufferers of MS and other debilitating conditions."

Patients will take different formulations of compounds derived from cannabis using an under-the-tongue spray.

The aim of the programme is to develop cannabis-based prescription medicines which could be on sale as early as 2003.

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