“Smoking cannabis from a pipe can significantly reduce chronic pain in patients with damaged nerves,” reported the BBC back in 2010. It also reported that improvements in sleep and anxiety were seen.
However, the NHS, who were no doubt inundated with enquiries, were quick to point out that these findings were based upon a small randomised trial based upon only 23 people and that a larger trial would be required. They were also keen to highlight that possession of cannabis is a criminal offence, as well as the dangers of smoking cannabis, such as respiratory problems and suggested mental health issues.
This limited trial, which was carried out by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, suggested that a low dose of inhaled cannabis (lower than that needed to cause a “high”), resulted in a modest improvement in reported pain in patients suffering neuropathic pain.
But where do we currently stand legally in the UK for the medical use of cannabis?
In Victorian times, a doctor’s bag would carry a whole variety of now banned and highly restricted substances, including marijuana and opiates, but over the years the legislators set to work in restricting or banning their use, often for very good reasons.
In recent years, in the case of cannabis, which is often seen as a ‘soft drug’, there have been numerous examples of juries acquitting people who have argued that their use of the drug is medicinal, commonly for chronic pain caused by a variety of conditions.
In 1999, a Select Committee of the House of Lords actually recommended that cannabis be available on prescription in some circumstances, although this recommendation was not accepted by the government at the time.
In 2002, the government announced that the medical use of cannabis might be allowed if clinical trials of the drug were successful.
In January 2004, the government downgraded cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug for all purposes, but then reversed this decision in May 2008.
It was then not until 2010 that GW Pharmaceuticals were granted a licence to market the first cannabis-based prescription medicine in the UK. Sativex contains cannabinoids and is used to treat spasticity in people with multiple sclerosis. Research continues into the wider use of Sativex, including neuropathic pain of other origins.
Promising trials on the wider medical use of cannabis also continue elsewhere in the world, notably at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California. And only last week it was reported that a large donation had been made to the University of Sydney in Australia to enable research into the medicinal use of cannabis for a rare form of epilepsy.
Despite this interest, the legal medicinal use of cannabis in the UK remains extremely limited.
More generally, whilst public opinion seems to favour the greater liberalisation of the use of cannabis, successive governments seem reluctant to risk being tarnished with a reputation for being ‘soft on drugs’.