Herbalist faces jail for importing cannabis for MS and Aids patients

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The Independent Online

A herbalist who sells cannabis-based medicines to hundreds of multiple sclerosis, Aids and cancer patients is facing jail tomorrow after admitting that he tried to smuggle 25kg of cannabis into Britain from Switzerland.

Tony Taylor, who runs an alternative medicine shop and "cannabis dispensary" in King's Cross, London, was arrested at Luton airport in March.

He told Customs officers he had bought the cannabis to make specialised medicines for 700 patients, many of whom were referred to him by local GP surgeries and Aids clinics.

Two weeks ago, Mr Taylor - who has openly sold cannabis medicines from Tony's Holistic Centre for a decade - pleaded guilty at Luton crown court to illegally importing the drug. He will be sentenced tomorrow, and could be jailed for three years or heavily fined.

The judge is also due to sentence one of Mr Taylor's employees, Mary Po Lee, who tried to smuggle a smaller quantity of the drug through the airport several weeks after his arrest.

MPs last week voted to downgrade cannabis to Class C, alongside tranquillisers and steroids. The reclassification will come into force in January, and will soften the punishment for possession, but keep a maximum 14-year sentence for dealing.

Meanwhile, ministers are preparing to legalise cannabis-based medicine for the first time, amid mounting evidence that it can relieve symptoms of some chronic and terminal conditions.

Next year, GW Pharmaceuticals and the drugs giant Bayer are expected to begin selling, on prescription, a cannabis-derived aerosol spray called Sativex, following successful clinical trials authorised by the Home Office.

After the British Medical Association endorsed claims that it had therapeutic uses in 1997, tens of thousands of MS, Aids and arthritis sufferers are now thought to use cannabis. Mr Taylor is the first supplier to admit publicly to selling cannabis for medical purposes.

Mr Taylor, 53, an alternative healer, sells his preparations -- a cream, a tincture and dried cannabis flowers - only to clients with proven medical conditions. "I don't sell cannabis for recreational use. We're trying to help people who need medicines," he said.

An MS sufferer and former professional ice skater, Debra Atherton, said his products "massively" improved her symptoms. Now wheelchair-bound, Ms Atherton, 44, said: "It alleviates depression, it stops my muscle spasms and increases my appetite."

In February, Mr Taylor brought in 20kg of organically grown cannabis from Switzerland - where medicinal cannabis use is legal - and was stopped by Customs. Three weeks later, Mary Po Lee was arrested at Luton with 5kg of the drug. They were advised to plead guilty after the judge rejected their defence of "duress of circumstance", which stated that they had been forced to import the drug because local cannabis was of poor quality, and could harm the health of his clients.