A campaign to legalise the medical use of cannabis is being launched amid warnings that up to 1.1 million people across Britain are currently breaking the law by taking the drug to combat the pain of chronic conditions.
The drive, called End Our Pain, coincides with a Coronation Street storyline focusing on the issue, and is being supported by the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and senior politicians from all parties.
Campaigners hope to attract hundreds of thousands of signatures for a petition backing the move, with the aim of forcing a Commons debate on legalising medicinal cannabis. They are pressing for ministers to follow the lead of several Western European countries and US states in allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to alleviate the painful symptoms of disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Estimates of the number of people in the UK who use cannabis for medical reasons range between 861,000 and 1.15 million. They are thought to represent between a quarter and a third of the country’s three million-plus regular cannabis users.
Supporters of legalisation believe they will receive widespread support after millions of television viewers watched the plight of the Coronation Street character, Izzy Armstrong, who is a wheelchair user. She begins to suffer such severe pain that her regular prescription medicine cannot tackle it and in desperation resorts to cannabis.
Chemical compounds called cannabinoids – found in cannabis – affect how the body reacts to pain. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has called for an open mind on the issue of altering the legal status of medicinal cannabis. Its chief scientist, Jayne Lawrence, has said: “The worst possible situation would be to have patients deprived of potentially effective medicines.”
Multiple sclerosis: The stiffness and muscle spasms experienced by people with MS could be alleviated by cannabinoids, as well as tackling the chronic pain associated with the condition and treating depression experienced by many sufferers.
Arthritis: Cannabis has been used for centuries to relieve the pain of chronic arthritis, as well as reducing the inflammation associated with it. Researchers are working on designing artificial cannabis to ease the symptoms of osteoarthritis. They are examining ways of inhibiting a pain-sensing pathway in the spinal cord.
Chrohn’s Disease: Studies suggest cannabis could reduce the inflammation caused by the disease with few side-effects.
Cancer: Research in the US suggests that marijuana could help kill cancer cells and reduce the size of others, including cells from one of the most serious types of brain tumour.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): The compounds in cannabis could correct the deficiency of dopamine thought to cause ADHD by calming and focusing adults with the condition.
The campaign’s co-ordinator, Peter Carroll, said: “For too long the issue of medical cannabis has been caught up in the wider issue of drug law reform, but this is a standalone issue. Denying patients access to a medicine that can help them just because it contains cannabis is morally wrong and cruel. We are criminalising people whose only aim is to ease the pain and discomfort of their condition.”
Mr Clegg, who recently met a delegation of medicinal cannabis users, said: “This is an issue whose time has come. Thousands of Britons live with agonising pain when there is a medicine that we know works that could be made easily available to them. They deserve our compassion and support, not criminal records or a lifetime of pain. Whatever your views on cannabis or drug use more widely, surely we can all agree that doctors should be able to prescribe medicine to their patients if they think it will help them.”
The Labour MP, Paul Flynn, said: “This is a drug which has been trialled for 5,000 years by many millions of people. If there were serious adverse effects, they would have been apparent many years ago. I believe the evidence is overwhelming. From scientific trials it does have an effect particularly relieving the spasms that people with multiple sclerosis have.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, said: “I’m persuaded by the evidence that cannabis should be regulated and available for medical use via, for example, pharmacists. It’s important to get the regulatory model right, but the bottom line is that we need to end the perverse way in which individuals are criminalised simply for wanting to relieve the pain they are suffering.”
Several Conservative MPs have backed legalising medical cannabis. They include the former cabinet minister, Peter Lilley, who has pointed out that Queen Victoria is believed to have used the drug to relieve menstrual pain. He said: “If it is a Victorian value, surely it can be made more widely available.”