The first cannabis-based prescription medicines for more than 30 years will
be available in high street chemists this year, the drugs minister, Bob
Ainsworth, revealed yesterday.

GW Pharmaceuticals, which was licensed by the Home Office to carry out
clinical research trials on cannabis, has submitted "an extremely positive"
report to the medicines control agency before final approval.

"We could be in a situation where we are able to make cannabis-derived
medicines available before the end of the year," Mr Ainsworth told MPs.

The drug company has been testing an under-the-tongue spray in trials
involving about 350 patients. The spray has been useful in treating
multiple sclerosis and helps reduce nerve damage pain and sleep disturbance.

Additional trials looking at its effectiveness in treating pain in cancer
and spinal cord injury are under way. GW says it is discussing the
marketing of its new product with several drugs companies.

The main ingredient in the cannabis-derived medicines does not contain the
active substance found in recreational cannabis and so patients taking the
new drugs will not become intoxicated. Their prescriptions will not be
subject to the international treaties banning the production and sale of
cannabis.

Cannabis-based medicines were outlawed in 1968 after legislation banned
doctors from prescribing tincture of cannabis which contained a high
concentration of the active THC psychotropic ingredient which was popular
among some recreational cannabis users. While Mr Ainsworth was able to
report "really good progress" to MPs on medicinal cannabis, he was less
forthcoming when challenged over new research reported earlier this week in
the Guardian, which showed that as much as half the cannabis smoked in
Britain may be homegrown.

Mr Ainsworth told the Commons home affairs select committee that the
government would not adopt a lenient approach to those who cultivated
cannabis for personal use.

"We feel that the courts should deal with that. It is down to the courts to
apply their discretion. We have no intention of being more lenient on what
is the production of an illegal substance," he told Chris Mullin, chairman
of the committee which questioned him on the issue.

"I don't think the courts deal with a serious international drug trafficker
in the same way as the people you are talking about," Mr Ainsworth said.

The minister also indicated that plans to prescribe heroin to drug addicts
who do not respond to methadone treatment had run into a new problem.

He said that some supermarkets had made it clear that they would be
unwilling to allow medicinal heroin to be prescribed in their new pharmacy
departments.

Mr Ainsworth said he would raise the matter with the Department of Trade
and Industry, which is to rule on an office of fair trading inquiry into
the supermarkets' expansion into the pharmacy trade.

New Home Office guidance to doctors on prescribing heroin is to be issued
next month. One aim is to boost the number of doctors willing to treat
class-A drug addicts.


Pubdate: Sat, 22 Mar 2003
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Webpage: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,919450,00.html
Copyright: 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact: letters@guardian.co.uk
Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/