Even as British research on the medical uses of cannabis swings into high gear, Parliament is refusing to act on a member's bill to legalize its medical uses.
Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Paul Flynn, a pharmacist by trade, told BBC Radio his bill would "allow cannabis in its natural state to be provided by a limited number of doctors in an unlicensed form to named patients just as heroin and cocaine are prescribed legally now."
He also lambasted the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair for "political cowardice" in three times rebuffing his efforts to change the law. "The response from ministers each time... has had the lingering scent of hypocrisy, callousness, indifference and political cowardice."
But after his fellow MPs refused to nudge his bill forward, Flynn may detect some of that same scent in the halls of Parliament. After debate during the bill's second reading, it failed to gain the votes necessary to move forward and is "certain to fail," the BBC reported.
Opponents of the measure cited fears it would encourage recreational use of cannabis and said the bill was premature in light of ongoing studies. Such comments echoed a 1999 House of Lords select committee report that argued more research was necessary.
Conservative MP Anne McIntosh told Parliament: "I am concerned that in agreeing to this bill, we would give the wrong message to those who seek to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes."
Home Office Minister Barbara Roche, speaking for the Blair government, said, "It would be premature to amend the misuse of drugs legislation to allow the prescribing of cannabis until the quality, safety, and efficacy of a medicinal form of the drug has been scientifically established and a marketing authorization issued by the medicines control agency."
MP Flynn was not impressed by opponents' arguments.
"The medicine of cannabis is the world's most ancient medicine. Trials have been going on for 5,000 years with billions of people," he told fellow MPs. "It was used by the people who built the pyramids for their eye problems. It was used by Queen Victoria for her menstrual cramps."
Cannabis, Flynn said, was "less toxic than aspirin and has never knowingly killed anybody."
Flynn got support from fellow Welsh MP Dafydd Wigley, who told the House of Commons: "This is a matter of urgency and it is something that cannot wait for another four or five years for these tests to be concluded and then evaluated and then acted on."
The parliamentarians were referring to a series of tests underway to test the efficacy of cannabis for medical purposes. In late January, the government-approved Cannabis in Multiple Sclerosis (CAMS) study began distributing cannabis capsules to its first 20 patients. Some will get placebos. After three months, the study will be expanded to 660 patients at 40 research centers across the country.
Participating patients are granted licenses to possess the Schedule 1 drug and thus may legally take their medicine home with them. They will undergo up to five weeks of titration (adjusting the dosage), followed by two months of medication at a steady dose.
"We're looking for a dose that can help relieve symptoms with minimal side effects," researcher Dr. Patrick Fox told the British Medical Journal. "We find that few patients want to be stoned or high when they have to take the drug all the time."
In addition to the CAMS study, a set of three smaller trials have been underway since last fall. In those studies, with cannabis grown in Britain by GW Pharmaceuticals, patients with multiple sclerosis or chronic pain are receiving sublingual sprays containing cannabinoids. Those trials will expand to 2,000 patients over the next two years.
Professor William Notcutt, in charge of one of the studies, told the British Medical Journal he was not overly concerned that patients might be getting high.
"We're looking at overall quality of life as well as pain relief," Notcutt said. "If a patient says he feels better since starting the drug, I'm not going to panic that some of that might be drug-induced euphoria and cut their dose on moral grounds."
The final results for the sublingual trials are not expected until 2003, and the CAMS study is not expected to be completed until after that.