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Pot Pain-Killer Under Consideration for Britons

Mon Feb 18, 9:40 AM ET

LONDON (Reuters) - Britons suffering from multiple sclerosis and other forms of severe pain could legally be prescribed cannabis-based drugs within two years, health chiefs said on Monday. 

Sufferers from diseases such as MS, which attacks the central nervous system, have been calling for a pain-relieving cannabis medicine for years and many have broken the law by buying the drug from street dealers. 

The government is studying its use as a painkiller, a move likely to reignite debate over relaxing Britain's drug laws. 

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

Trials have been set up in Britain to assess the use of cannabis in multiple sclerosis and post-operative pain, Health Minister Lord Hunt said. 

Britain's government-funded Medical Research Council is testing cannabis-based tablets on hundreds of MS sufferers. 

The results of those tests, expected at the end of 2002, will be forwarded to NICE, Britain's medical watchdog, which will decide whether the cannabis tablets should be offered on prescription through the National Health Service. 

"A decision whether one or more of these products will be licensed for official medical use is likely in 2004/5," the Department of Health said in a statement. 

Hunt warned against linking the medicinal use of cannabis to its recreational use. 

Britain has relaxed its stance on marijuana, saying users caught with small quantities of the drug for personal use will escape with a police caution rather than a fine or jail term. 

Cannabis is favored by many MS or cancer sufferers, who say it kills pain and stimulates appetite without the corrosive side effects of many prescription alternatives. 

A British company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is developing cannabis-based prescription medicines. It recently said it would expand clinical trials into dealing with cancer pain. 

Dr. Geoffrey Guy, executive chairman of GW, said: "This is a positive move by the government." 

The Multiple Sclerosis Society, the United Kingdom's largest charity for the 85,000 British people affected by the crippling disorder, said it welcomed any new, safe treatments. 

"Anecdotal evidence tells us that existing drugs are not effective in dealing with their symptoms and they do get benefit from using cannabis," said a spokesman for the society. 

Cannabis was outlawed in Britain in 1928 and possession and supply remain illegal.