Lady Cumberlege, in a statement to the Independent, said that if scientific evidence of its benefits was made available then the Government would not 'rule it out as being used as a prescribed drug'.
Cannabis as medicine is used by a growing number of people, particularly those with multiple sclerosis and those who suffer severe chronic back pain. For multiple sclerosis patients the widely and independently reported benefit is a reduction in painful and uncontrollable spasms. It is known to reduce pressure inside the eye in patients with glaucoma, and it is also used by some cancer patients.
The Department of Health is looking into this illegal use of cannabis with the knowlege of the Home Office. In a statement, Lady Cumberlege said: 'If it was shown that there were indications for the use of cannabis in specific medical conditions we would look at it carefully. The supporting data would need to be presented to the Medicines Control Agency for assessment with a view to licensing the preparation.'
Last week, an informal survey by the British Medical Association's News Review found that 74.4 per cent of 290 family and hospital doctors approved of the use of cannabis for 'proven therapeutic reasons'. A third said cannabis should be decriminalised generally.
The patients' organisation, Action for Cannabis Therapeutics, which is in touch with about 200 people, is trying to collect evidence of the benefits. 'We cannot promote cannabis use, as that is illegal. We are campaigning to promote its licensed use as a treatment,' Act's founder, Clare Hodges, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, said.
She said she knew from correspondence that some doctors were sympathetic but could not speak out for fear of the consequences.
Pressure from patients has been growing for more than six months since the use of a synthetic version of cannabis, a licensed drug called nabilone, was tightened up.
This drug, marketed as Cesamet, has a medicine's licence in Britain only to treat nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Last year the pharmaceutical company Lilly Industries became aware that nabilone was being prescribed more widely and wrote to pharmacists and doctors to remind them of its limited use.
There has been no clinical trial of nabilone as a treatment for mutiple sclerosis symptoms and a spokesman for Lilly says none is planned. 'The drug has a limited use for nausea and is not a first-line treatment. The side effects can be severe.' These include hallucinations, disorientation, euphoria, dry mouth, drowsiness, headache and fainting.
However, patients with MS or spinal injury who have used nabilone say they need a very small amount to help their symptoms. One woman told Act that she broke open the capsules and used half the amount.
Action for Cannabis Theraputics: PO Box CR14, Leeds LS7 4XF. Fax: 0532 371000.
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