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Prosecutors take a tough line on cannabis supplied to relieve pain

Clare Dyer, legal editor, The Guardian, 17th July 2006

Prosecutors are taking a firm line on the supply of cannabis for pain relief to people with chronically painful conditions such as multiple sclerosis, despite the downgrading of the drug from class B to class C.

Two crown court trials, one starting this week and one next week, will accuse four individuals of supplying illegal drugs through the organisations Bud Buddies and THCforMS (Therapeutic Help from Cannabis for Multiple Sclerosis).

THCforMS says on its website that it has supplied 33,000 bars of cannabis chocolate to bona fide MS sufferers over the last five years. Mark Gibson, Lezley Gibson and Marcus Davies of THCforMS face a charge of conspiracy to supply cannabis in a trial that begins next Wednesday at Carlisle crown court.

Bud Buddies offered a number of cannabis preparations including cannabis cream for topical application to anyone with a proven medical need.

Its founder, Jeffrey Ditchfield, faces nine charges of cultivation and supply of cannabis, including a charge of supplying a cannabis plant received by John Reid, now home secretary, in November 2005. His trial starts on July 24 at Mold crown court. All four face maximum sentences of 14 years in prison.

Estimates suggest that between 10% and 30% of MS sufferers in Europe use cannabis to alleviate the pain and distressing symptoms of the disease.

Many say it alleviates their symptoms where ordinary prescription drugs have failed. Few medicines are effective for treating MS, which affects around 85,000 people in the UK.

MS patients say the prosecutions, if successful, will close down this route to help, while the government drags its heels on licensing a cannabis-based drug.

Sativex, a cannabis-derived medicine which can be sprayed under the tongue, has been available in Canada since 2001. In March 2003, GW Pharmaceuticals submitted a product licence application for Sativex to the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

But despite evidence in small-scale clinical trials that the cannabis derivative THC relieves pain, no licence has been forthcoming. A three-year trial to test whether cannabis derivatives slow the progress of MS as well as alleviating symptoms is just getting under way.

The Home Office announced last November that the drug could be imported and prescribed by doctors on a "named patient" basis while still unlicensed but few patients who have asked for it have been able to get it, according to a survey by Disability Now.

A cannabis-using MS sufferer who asked not to be named said her request to be prescribed Sativex had been turned down. "I find it inconceivable that the CPS sees these prosecutions as in the public interest when there is still no legal way for the people who are helped by cannabis to obtain and use it," she added.

The British Medical Association said in a 1997 report: "While research is under way the police, the courts and prosecuting authorities should be aware of the medicinal reasons for the unlawful use of cannabis by those suffering from certain medical conditions for whom other drugs have proved ineffective."

But the Crown Prosecution Service has continued to prosecute both users and suppliers of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Some have been convicted. But others were found not guilty after successfully raising the defence of "necessity", which allows an illegal act to avert a greater harm - in their cases, severe pain.

Those acquitted included a man with spinal injuries who set up a medical marijuana cooperative, and a doctor who supplied her daughter, whose illness was not specified.

But the appeal court closed off the defence of necessity last year, ruling in six test cases that it did not apply to the use of cannabis to relieve chronic pain.

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