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Britain Does an About-face on Cannabis Policy

In a move that is bound to stir controversy, British doctors could be prescribing cannabis-based pain-killing drugs as early as 2004 if clinical trials prove a success.

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"Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine," a book written by Lester Grinspoon, M.D on the medical benefits of marjuana

Long smoked casually as a recreational drug, cannabis is set to be legalised within two years in Britain as a medicinal drug on the National Health Service for multiple sclerosis and cancer sufferers.

Britain's Medical Research Council is funding clinical trials on cannabis-based medicines to treat hundreds of sufferers of the crippling disease of the nervous system, multiple sclerosis. The trials will investigate the usefulness and safety of cannabis-based drugs.

The results expected at the end of 2002 will be forwarded to Britain's medical watchdog, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) for appraisal.

NICE would then issue guidelines for doctors on prescribing two cannabis derivatives - one an under-the-tongue spray manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals and the other a tablet, Dronabinol made by Solvay Healthcare. Neither results in a "high" and patients will not be given the option of smoking cannabis.

If approved, the pain-killing cannabis-based drugs could change the lives of Britain's estimated 60,000 multiple sclerosis sufferers and cancer patients.

Medical view of cannabis transformed

The official medical view of cannabis has undergone a revolution over the years. Although no one believes that cannabis is a harmless drug, it is now widely seen to be less dangerous than say alcohol or tobacco.

Apart from its mildly sedative and pain-relieving properties it is also known to minimise other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and spasms. It is also believed to increase appetite and lower blood pressure.

Patients who have been administered cannabis-based drugs have spoken of it as a "wonder drug" with hardly any side effects.

Doctors believe cannabis could eventually prove useful in treating conditions such as osteoporosis, HIV and AIDS, arthritis, spinal injuries and some forms of mental disorders.

Critics argue that the drug may impair short term memory and affect body co-ordination. But there are no records of cases involving a fatal overdose of cannabis.

Decriminalising cannabis

The possibility of cannabis-based drugs being legalised in the future also reflects Britain's relaxed stance towards drugs.

A seven-month investigation by the Home Affairs Select Committee also concluded that cannabis should be downgraded from a class B to a class C illicit drug and prosecutions for possession of cannabis should be ended.

So far possession of cannabis entailed a maximum five year prison sentence and an unlimited fine as laid down in Britain's 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Last year Canada became the first country to legalise the use of marijuana as a treatment for chronic illnesses.

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