Cannabis: a year that changed minds

The medical benefits of the drug are now widely accepted. Vanessa Thorpe meets the research team developing a plant that could transform lives
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The Independent Online
NOT EVERY Dutch greenhouse the aeroplanes fly over on the descent to the runway at Schipol airport is full of tulip bulbs. One cluster of glass outhouses, in particular, contains a very different crop.

At a secret location between the airport and the city of Amsterdam a small team of highly motivated scientists is working on the world's first patented cannabis plant product. So far, their chief and only customer is a British doctor.

Slide back the door to one of HortaPharm's large greenhouses and the smell is overwhelming. Rows of cannabis plants of different types and sizes stretch out into the middle distance. But, contrary to appearances, this research farm is no paradise for the pleasure-seeking puffer.

"It looks like dope, but really it's hope," explains the proprietor, American entrepreneur David Watson. What he means is that many of these plants have been specifically bred not to produce an intoxicating resin or hashish. Indeed, HortaPharm hopes to thwart the aims of the average recreational user.

The team are already close to finding their own commercial Holy Grail - seeds that will produce a one-off, female, seedless crop of plants with no psychotropic effects (or THC highs, to the layman) for the consumer. Why, you might ask, would they want to do that?

The answer is that Mr Watson and his Amsterdam-based scientists are working to create a stable, plant-based medical product. They want to isolate the beneficial effects of cannabis' various properties and then reproduce them, ad infinitum, from specialised parent plants.

Mr Watson and his Dutch colleague, biochemist Etienne de Meijer, are confident that by using their own exclusive cross-breeding methods, they can develop healthy plants which will combine only the desired chemical make-up of individual medicines.

There will be no generational deterioration and no genetic difference between each plant because they will be bred from themselves: they will be cloned. "You can clone a plant 10 times," explains Mr de Meijer, "and every time it will be exactly the same."

Mr de Meijer has developed his own technique of "self-progeny" - or "selfing" - where he turns half of one female plant temporarily into a male. Fertilising a plant with itself in this way means the same genetic make-up can be reproduced.

"I can make 20,000 clones with 'selfed' parents in two weeks," he says. "Humans may degenerate from inbreeding, but these plants do not. I'm sure I am the first person to apply this method of inbreeding to cannabis and I found the selfing process was amazingly simple."

But the unique research has no market in Holland. "Because the sale of the drug is tolerated in coffee shops, there is no interest - though people don't really know what they are buying," says Mr Watson.

As a result, the seeds that HortaPharm is producing are passed straight on to Britain to take their place in the soil at the ground-breaking facility set up this summer by Dr Geoffrey Guy in south-east England. "We hooked up with Dr Guy in January and right now all we are doing is providing the basic building blocks for his work," says Mr Watson. "We were rather surprised that it would happen in England first."

HortaPharm's sample plants are analysed in the laboratory with a gas chromatographer and with each new batch the team homes in on the plant's distinct chemical components or cannabinoids - THC, CBD, CBC, CBG and THCV. When Dr Guy completes his medical research in Britain, HortaPharm will breed plants to supply the right combination of active ingredients for his treatments. "Once Dr Guy has worked out what he wants in chemical form, we will find him the right physical characteristics, too, by combining desirable features from plants found around the world - high-resin production and resistance to disease," says Mr de Meijer.

HortaPharm is only interested in developing female plants that are sterile, but this is not just to protect their genetic copyright. "If a plant is not kept busy producing seeds, all its energy can go into resin production," says Mr de Miejer.

Sitting at his computer screen in Amsterdam, Mr Watson can keep an eye on the perimeter fence at Dr Guy's British farm via the internet. "The security he has there is amazing," says Mr Watson, who flew out to plant the first seeds there two months ago.

In June, Dr Guy's company, G W Pharmaceuticals, secured the first British licence to grow the plant for medical purposes. By arrangement with the Home Office, the doctor can farm cannabis plants and investigate their properties with a view to marketing a cheap herbal-based answer to the debilitating symptoms of MS, Glaucoma, Parkinson's, cancer, asthma and Aids.

A year ago today the Independent on Sunday launched its campaign to decriminalise cannabis, attracting tremendous public attention. Five months later, the IoS held a march, attended by more than 16,000 people, and organised an influential Westminster Conference to look at drugs legislation. Yesterday, hundreds of campaigners met again in Hyde Park to demonstrate their continuing concerns.

But it is the case for legalising the medical use of the drug which has gained most ground in the past 12 months. Key markers of this shift in public perspective were the positive outcome of the British Medical Association's report in November last year and the House of Lords' select committee decision to investigate the question. The committee has yet to publish its conclusions.

This week, even more powerful evidence of the useful properties of cannabis was revealed in the work of the research team working under Dr Ian Meng at the University of California. Researching on rats, Dr Meng has found the brain stem circuit which is involved in the pain-suppressing activities of morphine, but which is also activated by the consumption of cannabinoids. "The medical arguments are really gaining ground," says Dr Meng. "There is some proof now that the drug can help people."

Dr Guy also believes scientifically verifiable research is the only way forward. Although he is looking at anecdotal patient evidence, he knows that outside the laboratory it is impossible to establish exactly which cannabinoids are effective.

Mr Watson of HortaPharm makes the same point: "Domestic users can make a contribution, but they don't know the profile of the plant they are treating themselves with. The average hashish in a coffee-shop product is 5 per cent THC. We can already make it 30 per cent. So, what are they doing to it?" He believes the bright future of the drug is contained in the greenhouses of HortaPharm and GW Pharmaceuticals.

At his Amsterdam glasshouses, he nods conspiratorially at the healthy- looking garden produce. "Don't say anything yet, but we are also working on putting THC into tomatoes," he confides. Then he cackles reassuringly: "Only kidding!"


28 September 1997 - IoS launches its campaign calling for the decriminalisation of cannabis.

12 October 1997 - An IoS poll reveals an 80 per cent national majority in favour of cannabis legalisation.

26 October 1997 - Emma Bonino, EU Commissioner, is one of many prominent people to endorse the IoS campaign.

16 November 1997 - A BMA report favours decriminalising a drug it considers "safe".

13 December 1997 - IoS holds a conference on cannabis and the law in Westminster.

28 March 1998 - Thousands join the IoS march in London.

21 June 1998 - Huge national vote for decriminalising the medical use of cannabis by the Townswomen's Guild.

26 July 1998 - Dr Geoffrey Guy puts the case for medical research to members of a Lords select committee.

26 September 1998 - Protest meeting in Hyde Park.