Cannabis: Good for your health?

IN THIS DAY AND AGE, where political correct-ness and morality rule, society in general has become more informed about most topics, be it cancer or cloning. However, when drugs become the subject of discussion, more often than not, images of needles, raves and Amsterdam coffee shops spring to mind. Neither one to abide by PC, nor one to fear backlash from its more conservative European neighbours, the Dutch government recently opened its doors for cannabis to be used in medicine. Alex Wong, healthcare analyst at Frost and Sullivan, looks at the current stance that Europe has on cannabis today.

Reforms on the Dutch Drug Scene
On the groundbreaking day of Monday 17th March 2003, doctors and chemists in the Netherlands were told that they would be able to start prescribing and dispensing mari-juana later this year. In introducing this law, the Netherlands has become the first country to treat marijuana in the same way in which it treats all other prescription drugs. Whilst representing the first nation in Europe to formally authorise the use of cannabis for medical purposes, they are not the worldwide pioneers. This title, in fact, belongs to Canada, who first implemented their medical mari juana programme in July 2001. However, the Canadian plan has had a few teething problems with its complicated registration process. For example, this is illustrated by the low number of patients who have successfully managed to enrol on a course of treatment.

To ensure the smooth running of their newly established project, the Dutch govern-ment has enacted guidelines that focus primarily on quality control and security. Cultivators are expected to operate under tight product quality regulations to guarantee the constant and reproducible therapeutic properties of the medicinal cannabis. These growers are then likely to be contracted by the government to supply primary care clinics and pharmacies across the land, selling exclu-sively to the Office of Medicinal Cannabis (BMC) of the Health Ministry and other gov- ernment-licensed providers to prevent the goods from reaching the illegal market. With the end of March having been marked out as a possible date for the signature of the first of such contracts, September is likely to be the month when the first crop is delivered to pharmacies. Until then, chemists are allowed to choose from whom to purchase their medicine supplies.

Follow the Leader?
Over the past year, the Home Office has been toying with the idea of decriminalising cannabis in Britain. On the one hand, it has been reported that the Prime Minister does not want to be seen as relaxing his tough stance on drugs, yet on the other hand, recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) suggest that cannabis should now be categorised in the same bracket as prescription tranquillisers such as valium, thus rendering its possession non-prosecutable. Whilst cautiously welcom-ing the potential use of cannabis to treat a variety of disorders, as illustrated in Figure 1, top-brass officials are adamant that there will be no decriminalisation of soft drugs in the near future.

In the UK, clinical trials are currently under-way involving the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers with cannabis. MS represents one of the most common illnesses affecting young people, with approximately 85,000 people in Britain suffering from this nervous system-related disease. In December 1999 the Medical Research Council (MRC) announced the allocation of over £1.5 million for a 3-year project to be carried out on the effect of cannabinoids for the treatment of spasticity from MS. In addition to this public sector study, companies such as GW Pharmaceuticals and Solvay Healthcare are also developing medicines derived from cannabis for the treatment of MS. At the time of writing, the respective cannabis-based dronabinol tablet and under-the-tongue medicinal spray products are still undergoing clinical trials, and are not expected to be launched on to the market before 2004. The introduction of such cannabis-related medicines is eventually expected to see the further relaxation of current drug laws con-cerning cannabis in the UK. With the Home Office planning to downgrade cannabis from class B to C, essentially paving the way for personal use, it is believed that marijuana medicine may eventually result in the UK taking the same path on which the Dutch set off on a long time ago.

Who’s next?
In March 2003, the Benelux region showed it is way ahead of its European counterparts when Belgium announced its decision to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Switzerland has also adopted a more lenient attitude towards it and is showing signs of being in favour of legalising cannabis – although for now, it remains illegal there. With countries in the Mediterranean region, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, all con-templating similar reforms, it seems that the majority of Europe is undergoing a cannabis revolution. Once the laughing stock of Europe, so successful has their softly-softly approach to marijuana been, it is widely believed that the trend-setting Dutch can be applauded for their visionary role in facilitating the integra-tion of cannabis not only into recreation but also medicine.