Cannabis: The experts

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Hundreds of doctors and scientists have supplied evidence to the Independent on Sunday of the therapeutic value and non-addictive properties of cannabis. Their material will form part of the dossier which this newspaper will hand over to the Government following Jack Straw's call for more information about the drug.

Over the past 12 weeks, we have held many discussions with, and received many letters from, the medical profession as well as from long-term recreational users and from MS and cancer sufferers on this subject. We have been to the Netherlands to study the decriminalisation policy there and, three weeks ago, we held a conference to which people of all views were invited, including the Home Secretary.

The dossier of information we are compiling will contain the views of many prominent members of the medical profession who are convinced of the therapeutic properties of the drug. The vast majority of doctors are in favour of cannabis on prescription to help sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis; others believe it should also be available for recreational use, citing the fact that alcohol is a more dangerous drug than cannabis.

Professor Colin Blakemore, chairman of the British Neuroscientific Association, told the cannabis conference: "Efforts to prove the damaging effects of cannabis have produced little evidence of any harm to the brain and central nervous system, although it may do some harm to the lungs."

Dr Philip Robson, consultant psychiatrist and senior clinical lecturer at the Warneford Hospital, Oxford, said: "Alcohol and tobacco are arguably more toxic and addictive than cannabis, and the intoxication associated with alcohol can be much more dangerous and disruptive to society." Professor Lynn Zimmer, of the Soros Institute in New York, which recently reviewed 30 years of scientific studies of cannabis use, said: "Clearly, cannabis is not as debilitating as alcohol. There is the problem we see with all drugs: that some people use too much. This is less of a problem with cannabis than with most other drugs."

The Dutch experience is also instructive. In the Netherlands, cannabis was decriminalised in 1976 to draw a distinction between the use of hemp products such as hashish and marijuana and "drugs which pose an unacceptable risk to public health" - including heroin, cocaine, LSD and amphetamines. Yet, more British 15-year-olds use cannabis than Dutch teenagers in the same age bracket. And while our heroin addict population is growing younger, in Holland the addict population is ageing, suggesting that younger people are finding heroin less attractive.

A recent Dutch government report said: "Evidence of the success of the separation of the markets is to be found in the fact that only a very few of the young people in the Netherlands who use soft drugs take to using hard drugs. The decriminalisation of the possession of soft drugs has not led to a rise in their use."

Dutch government officials also point out that, as a result of controlled drug use, in their country potentially lethal solvent abuse and glue sniffing among teenagers are virtually unknown.

On the subject of decriminalisation for medicinal purposes, Mr Straw added yesterday: "There is no reason at all why cannabis should not be available for medical purposes if people can prove that it has therapeutic effects."

Last November, researchers from the University of California at San Francisco, from Brown University and the University of Michigan reported that "substances similar to or derived from marijuana, known as cannabinoids, could benefit the more than 97 million Americans who experience some form of pain every year". Their findings were based on studies using THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and synthetic cannabinoid WIN 55212. These substances "could be manipulated to form a new type of pain relief".

The same month, the British Medical Association reported: "Evidence indicates that they [chemical compounds in cannabis] are remarkably safe drugs, with a side-effects profile superior to many drugs used for the same indications."