Cannabis can ease the suffering of patients

Labour MP Gordon Prentice favours making the drug available for medical purposes

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In July this year the British Medical Association voted overwhelmingly for cannabis products to be made available for medical use. If this happens it will simply return us to the position which applied before 1973, when the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act came into force, outlawing medical use of the drug. Before then doctors could prescribe cannabis which was often dispensed in tincture form, like cough mixture.

Later this month the BMA's Board of Science will, it is believed, recommend wider use of the drug. This will reflect opinion within the profession which is moving sharply in favour of legalisation for medical use. The BMA magazine's Doctors Decide Panel of over 100 hospital doctors and GPs wants cannabis to be available on prescription. In an article in the BMA News Review earlier this year, 78 per cent of hospital doctors and three in five GPs agreed that the drug should be available for therapeutic purposes.

There is no doubt in my mind that cannabis and cannabis derivatives can help people cope with a variety of medical conditions. The drug has for centuries been regarded as having therapeutic value even if, these days, its efficacy is challenged. There is masses of anecdotal evidence from people suffering from MS, for example, which backs the claim that the drug really works. It can help reduce tremors and spasms and ease movement. Some people with Aids say it improves their appetite. It can help in the treatment of glaucoma. Tragically, because its medical use is unlawful it makes research much more difficult than it need be because a special Home Office licence is needed for any drug trial.

Despite this, in 1995, the previous government was forced to lessen the controls on dronabinol, one of the active ingredients of cannabis, after the World Health Organisation recommended that this derivative had therapeutic value as an anti-emetic for patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The Misuse of Drugs Act puts cannabis in Schedule 1 - drugs subject to the strictest controls on the grounds that they have allegedly little or no medical value and cause social problems through misuse. Besides cannabis, the list includes LSD, mescaline, raw opium and coca leaf. There is a powerful case for taking cannabis into the Schedule 2 list of controlled drugs with medical use, such as morphine, methadone and amphetamines, allowing qualified doctors lawfully to prescribe drugs that they believe will benefit patients.

Gordon Prentice is MP for Pendle in Lancashire and secretary of the All Party MS Group.

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