Health: Cannabis: why doctors want it to be legal: Mark Handscomb reports on a natural remedy that can help Aids and MS patients, and Clare Hodges tells why she defies the law to take it

JOYCELYN ELDERS, the new Surgeon General of the United States, has said that she will back the medical use of cannabis, which has been banned for both personal and therapeutic use since the late Thirties. Ms Elders, who takes up her appointment in June, says that cannabis 'is beneficial to many patients'.

In America, cannabis has been successfully used to ease nausea and restore the appetites of cancer patients and people suffering weight loss because of Aids. Now in Britain there is growing interest in the use of cannabis to relieve pain, particularly in cases of terminal illness, and in alleviating symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

'Marijuana is one of the least toxic substances in the whole pharmacopoeia,' says Dr Lester Grinspoon, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an adviser on drugs policy to the new government. 'It has an extraordinary range of medical applications which have been neglected by medicine thanks to a misinformation campaign by the federal government,' he says.

Most evidence of the therapeutic value of cannabis comes from the US. However, the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, based in Washington, is helping to form a British branch that will press for legal reforms. In Britain, the prescribing of cannabis for therapeutic use is forbidden under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Official interest in marijuana's therapeutic properties is growing in the US. Until the anti-smoking and anti-drugs lobbies joined forces, compassionate 'government reefers' were available on a controlled basis for a small number of patients, including some men with Aids. In 1991, this programme was halted.

'We were using marijuana to treat Aids wasting, but the fear was that it might cause lung complications and hasten the death of people with Aids,' Bill Greg, a spokesman for the US Public Health Service, says.

In his forthcoming book, Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine, Dr Grinspoon identifies epilepsy, paraplegia, migraine and menstrual pain as conditions that could be helped by cannabis. Much of his evidence comes from patients' subjective accounts of the drug's beneficial effects, but Dr Grinspoon claims cannabis has many advantages over modern drugs. 'People with Aids often suffer nausea as a result of taking the drug AZT. Smoking cannabis can often relieve the vomiting and slow down the diarrhoea associated with the condition.

'Aspirin was used as a substitute for cannabis to treat moderate pain. Yet between 500 and 1,000 people a year die because of bleeding caused by aspirin, and many people get hooked on various opiate derivatives,' he says.

Cannabis has been used in the West for more than 300 years, but it fell from favour at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of aspirin and opiate drugs. The drugs laws that followed sealed its fate.

Culpeper's 17th-century Complete Herbal manual advised readers that cannabis: '. . . allays the troublesome humours of the bowels, eases pains and shrinkings of the sinews and too much use of it dries up the seed for procreation'. During its heyday in the 19th century, cannabis was widely used by European doctors to alleviate pain. Its muscle-relaxant properties were recognised and cannabis became so respectable it was even given to Queen Victoria by her court physician, according to the American historian E L Abel (Marihuana: the first 12,000 years, New York Plenum, 1980).

Dr Grinspoon argues that since cannabis is cheap to produce, it could reduce America's enormous drugs bill, which threatens to cripple the country's medical services. The use of cannabis seized during raids by the Drug Enforcement Agency has been suggested as a possible source of supply.

In Britain, news that cannabis might help to alleviate the painful muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis has spread quickly among those desperate for relief. The Multiple Sclerosis Society has been inundated with inquiries.

Dr James Malone-Lee, a consultant urologist at St Pancras Hospital, London, has several MS patients who smoke cannabis. 'It relaxes the sphincters, which allows them to empty their bladders. I'm quite impressed by what's happened to patients who have used it,' he says.

He is waiting on Home Office permission to study the effects of cannabis on bladder muscle. 'The standard muscle-relaxant drugs, such as dantrolene and baclofen, are not very good. There is no way we would experiment with humans at the moment - although I have to say I've had an awful lot of letters from people volunteering themselves,' he says.

A common objection to using cannabis is that it induces euphoria. However, the British National Formulary, a dictionary of drugs widely used by doctors, describes it merely as a 'mild hallucinogen . . . seldom accompanied by a desire to increase the dose'.

More reasonably, concerns about the effects of cannabis on the brain have cast doubts over its value to MS patients since their disorder is neurological. Dr Malone-Lee says: 'Frankly, if I had their spasticity and bladder difficulties, I would take cannabis and not be too fussed about the effect on the central nervous system.'

But the major drawback to the legal, therapeutic use of cannabis is the fact that it is a natural substance and is therefore very crude. It contains 60 active ingredients or 'cannabinoids'. Single cannabinoids have been isolated and manufactured synthetically and are available on prescription, but Dr Grinspoon claims these are less effective than the natural substance. And since cannabis is a plant, it cannot be patented, making it an unattractive commercial proposition.

Dr Anthony Henman, former secretary of the International Anti-Prohibition League, rejects these arguments. 'One of the best effects cannabis can have in any terminal illness is to produce a degree of euphoria, which boosts morale in a depressing situation,' he says.

'Cannabis should be available in the same way as tea and coffee. It is totally immoral to make it difficult for people to use these substances. There is a general move back to medicine based on organic compounds, fuelled partly by the feeling that the pharmaceutical industry has deliberately excluded the use of vegetable compounds for its own commercial gain.'

Despite developments in the US, cannabis is unlikely to become available through doctors in Britain for some time. Patients who smoke it to relieve their pain or stress will continue to do so unlawfully. 'It's tragic that people who take cannabis as a medicine have to add a layer of anxiety to the one they already have to deal with as a consequence of their illness,' Dr Grinspoon says.

'When cannabis is put into historical perspective some years from now, it will seem amazing that we behaved like this towards this drug.'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel
travelFrom Notting Hill Carnival to Zombeavers at FrightFest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Service Desk Engineer-(Support, ITIL, Software Vendor)

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Engineer-(Support, S...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home