Medicinal Use of Cannabis

February 03, 2005


What is Cannabis? Cannabis is a durable hemp plant. The cannabis plant can be used to produce a number of products including seeds, pulp, and medicine. The pulp is used as fuel and to make paper, the seed is used in foods, and the oil from the seed can be used as a base for paints and varnishes. The blossoms and leaves of the hemp plant produce a sticky resin, which has historically been used in a variety of medicinal functions, and for just as long, for recreational drug use.

The compound which gives cannabis its depressant and mood-altering properties is known as THC.

Some people believe that cannabis has positive therapeutic qualities and is felt to be particularly useful for certain conditions, such as multiple sclerosis.


In the early 1900s cannabis was popular both as a recreational and a medicinal compound, and there are suggestions that Queen Victoria was given cannabis by her doctor to relieve period pain. The development of superior alternatives, such as the invention of the syringe for rapid drug inducement and the development of aspirin, alongside the failure to develop a standardised product and the poor rate of absorption from oral inhalation, led to the reduced use of Cannabis in medicine.

Cannabis was first made illegal in the UK in 1928, and medical use was outlawed in 1973. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, cannabis was increasingly used as a recreational drug, and medical interest in cannabis and its derivatives (cannabinoids) began to grow, principally on the strength of anecdotal evidence from illegal self-medication.

A number of reports about cannabis were published during the late 1990s: by the British Medical Association (1997), the US National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association (1997) the Department of Health (1998) and the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (1998).

The Select Committee report found cannabis was being used by people with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, ME and pain, and as an anti-emetic after chemotherapy, and claimed that this is 'sometimes connived at by the medical professions'.

The report recommended allowing the use of cannabis in some circumstances, but the proposals were rejected by the Government. Although policy remained unchanged, a 2001 follow-up report suggested that the Government's attitude was changing, stating: 'the Minister assured us that once a safe, effective, cannabis-based medicine had been licensed by the Medicines Control Agency, the Government would actively co-operate in permitting it to be prescribed.'

In 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that he might permit the medical use of cannabis if clinical trials of the drug are successful.

September 2003 saw the Netherlands become the first country in the world to explicitly legalise the use of cannabis for medical purposes and to licence its production and sale through pharmacies. In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the oral use of dronabinol, a cannabis derivative, for people with AIDS, as a means of restoring appetite.

In January 2004, the Home Office downgraded cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug for all purposes. It remains illegal to carry, smoke or possess cannabis in any form, but the police usually won't arrest or prosecute people found in possession of small amounts intended for personal use.


Despite its potential medical value, cannabis has long been thought to have harmful mental health side-effects, with many scientific reports linking it to depression, schizophrenia and other conditions.

There have been a number of high profile prosecutions of medicinal cannabis users in the UK, and the Science and Technology Committee report warned of regional variations in the verdicts and sentences handed down, or 'postcode prosecuting'. Figures and trends have been difficult to extrapolate, however, as the Home Office does not record instances in which therapeutic use is pleaded in mitigation.

Therapeutic use prosecutions are particularly controversial given the seriousness of some of the conditions of the users, including cancer, AIDS and MS, which has generated public sympathy for a change in the law. However, the large quantities, steady supplies and high quality of the product required by medicinal users has tended to make their cases more difficult for the authorities to ignore than casual users.

Medicinal use is one of the leading positive factors cited by those calling for legalisation of cannabis. Indeed, a synthetic form of THC - Nabilone has been licensed for use as an anti-emetic in prescription drugs since 1982. The drugs industry has also been developing aerosol sprays for delivering THC directly to the lungs without the health risks of smoking.

The criminalisation of those using cannabis for medicinal purposes has been a particularly controversial issue - with opponents questioning the social purpose and moral value of the law that punishes individuals merely for seeking an effective form of pain relief not available from conventional, legal sources.


  • Cannabis is the most frequently used drug, with around three million 16-59 year olds having used it in 2001 (11 per cent)
  • Cannabis contains 60 cannabinoids and more than 400 active chemical compounds - the most abundant being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). This complexity renders side-effects highly variable between different people.

    Statistic 1: (Source: British Crime Survey 2001/2002); Statistic 2: (Source: House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Second Report, 2001)


    'We consider that the acquittal of cannabis users by juries on compassionate grounds brings the law into disrepute. In the absence of a viable alternative medicine, moreover, and though we would not encourage smoking of cannabis, we consider it undesirable to prosecute genuine therapeutic users of cannabis who possess or grow cannabis for their own use. This unsatisfactory situation underlines the need to legalise cannabis preparations for therapeutic use.'
  • House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report, 2001

    'Cannabis has a beneficial effect for many patients.'
  • Dutch Health Ministry, September 2003

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