Cannabis-based drugs for the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) could eventually be available free of charge through the National Health Service (NHS). The British government is drawing up a list of treatments to be assessed by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) for availability on the NHS, among them cannabis.
There have been several trials to test the pain-relieving properties of cannabis for MS sufferers, the latest of which are due to finish at the end of the year. The Medical Research Council is funding two trials, one at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth and another at Hammersmith Hospital in London.
Drugs company GW Pharmaceuticals is also conducting its own clinical trials on cannabis-based medicines for the treatment of MS pain, cancer pain and other forms of nerve pain.
The early results of the trials are believed to be positive, but it is unlikely that a decision on whether to license cannabis drugs for pain relief will be made before 2004 or 2005. Data from the trials will be used by NICE in its assessment.
Dr Geoffrey Guy, executive chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, said the announcement was a positive move by the government. "Recommendation by NICE would further smooth the way for our cannabis-based medicines to be available nationwide to NHS patients on prescription, if our current trials are successful," he said.