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Drug Laws Update

No decision has been taken on whether to allow cannabis to be used for medical purposes, a Downing Street spokeswoman said. Reports suggested the Prime Minister Tony Blair, Home Se cretary Jack Straw and Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam had agreed a deal to allow the illegal drug's use. However, a No 10 spokeswoman said the Prime Minister would be waiting to find out what the clinical trials revealed. "He's not going to agree to anything before he has got the results of the trials," said the spokeswoman. "It is not the case that the Prime Minister has made any deal or made any decision," the spokeswoman added.

Sources claim that Mowlam has dropped her demand for a Royal Commission on cannabis legalisation in return for Blair and Straw agreeing to make it legal for people needing relief from pain.

Such a review could have paved the way for possessing cannabis for personal use to be decriminalised. But Mr Blair and Mr Straw have rejected the idea, arguing that any weakening of the government stance could encourage young people to experiment with soft drugs and then, they believe, to move onto hard drugs. But senior government sources said yesterday that Ms Mowlam will win her battle to allow cannabis to be used legally for therapeutic purposes. ''It is a trade-off,'' a Home Office source said. ''Mo will get the OK for medicinal use but she won't get anything else.''

Research is being carried out for the Department of Health into whether the active ingredients of cannabis can be used by patients to relieve severe pain.. An official three-year research project now under way is expected to validate the drug's use for medical purposes.

Downing Street yesterday insisted no decision had been made ahead of the research findings. But sources said it would be virtually impossible not to legalise cannabis for medical uses if the research says it can help.

However, courts are growing increasingly reluctant to punish medical users caught in possession and several police chiefs, including two Scots chief constables, have called for its medical use to be legalised. Even the Government-backed Scotland Against Drugs campaign supports decriminalisation for its use in illnesses.

Mowlam's spokeswoman said: "The Minister has said before that this issue will have to be looked at if the research finds that cannabis helps and that there are no side-effects."

The clamour for cannabis legalisation for medical purposes was fuelled in November 1988 when the House of Lords science committee said doctors should be allowed to prescribe it. Doctors have already urged the government to allow cannabis to be used for medical purposes - the British Medical Association's board of science declared in 1997 that there was evidence that the drug could help muscle spasm in patients with MS. There was also limited evidence of benefits for patients with epilepsy, glaucoma, asthma, high blood pressure and weight loss caused by AIDS.

However, doctors have warned that raw cannabis can be harmful - tar levels are three times higher than in cigarettes and new research has suggested that smoking four cannabis joints causes as much lung damage as 20 cigarettes.

Two trials into the medical use of cannabis were announced last year. A Medical Research Council study is looking at its effects on 660 patients with multiple sclerosis. A second trial by GW Pharmaceuticals, into its effects on 2,000 patients with MS, spinal cord injuries and chronic pain started this month.

In clinical trials MS patients are being given extract of cannabis known as tetrahydrocannabinol, used in the UK for over 30 years to treat nausea in cancer patients. Tests on muscle stiffness and mobility will be made every few weeks on the sufferers to measure exactly what help cannabis offers.

The British Medical Association and a House of Lords select committee have backed human trials, and further pressure for a relaxation of the law for therapeutic use came when the Police Foundation published the results of a two-year study into the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The independent inquiry, which enjoys semi-official status at the Home Office, recommended that people should no longer be jailed for possessing cannabis for their own use and that ecstasy should be downgraded from its present status as a Class A drug to Class B.

Alistair Ramsay, of Scotland Against Drugs, said: "We take the same line as the House of Lords. If there are conditions where cannabis is shown to help, then we support its decriminalisation for those purposes. We would prefer to see it in a non-smokable form and it doesn't alter our opposition to its use for recreational purposes. But if it can be shown to have a use for people in pain then we would not want to deny them that."

A spokesman for the MS society said last night: "We have never supported the criminalisation of MS sufferers who use cannabis and have called on the courts to treat people prosecuted for it with understanding. What we know from anecdotal evidence is that many MS sufferers say cannabis gives them relief from pain which is not available anywhere else."

But some anti-drugs groups believe the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes would open the door to a full-scale decriminalisation.

Glasgow-based anti-drugs campaigner Maxie Richards insisted: "There is no actual proof that cannabis has any beneficial effect on MS suffers not available from prescription drugs. If we were to legalise its use even for limited use, it would send out entirely the wrong signal to young people that it was acceptable to dabble in drugs. Young people need to be protected. Ninety-eight per cent of the heroin addicts who approach me for help say they started on cannabis. That tells its own story."

In 1998, Fife Chief Constable John Hamilton said GPs should be able to prescribe cannabis for MS sufferers. Last December, Central Scotland Police Chief Constable William Wilson said: "I'm convinced cannabis can bring relief to people suffering from illnesses like MS."

On 23-3-00 four Labour MPs tabled a Commons motion urging the Government to allow the therapeutic use of cannabis, speed up the human trials and order the police not to prosecute people with MS, Aids, arthritis and the relief of severe pain who use the drug with their doctor's permission. They said sufferers should not be "forced on to the streets to purchase illegal drugs or face an omnipresent threat of prosecution which puts the sick and dying on the front line of the war on drugs". The MPs want people to be allowed to use raw cannabis until a drug using its active chemicals, called cannabinoids, has been developed.

But the BMA has reservations about raw cannabis because some of its properties are harmful. Tar levels are three times the level of cigarettes, and new research suggests that smoking four joints causes as much lung damage as 20 cigarettes.

Ms Mowlam, who last month admitted smoking marijuana as a student in the Seventies, has backed calls by Keith Hellawell, the Government's anti-drugs co-ordinator, for the police to concentrate their efforts on the war against hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Her comments are said to have gone down badly in Downing Street and the Home Office.

Sources: Belfast Telegraph (UK), Irish Independent (Ireland) : Andrew Grice, Scotsman (UK) : Jenny Percival, Political Correspondent, Independent, The (UK) : Andrew Grice, Political Editor, Daily Record and Sunday Mail (UK) March 2000

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