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.'

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Environment
A Brazilian wandering spider
natureIt's worth knowing for next time one appears in your bananas
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
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
Life and Style
tech

Company decides to go for simply scary after criticising other sites for 'creepy and targeted' advertising

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
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

    C# asp.net Developer - West Sussex - permanent - £40k - £50k

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

    IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

    £55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past