British test inhaler that dispenses medical marijuana

February 14, 2004

Richard Willing, USA TODAY

Plans to make marijuana available by prescription to British multiple sclerosis sufferers promise to shake up the debate in the USA over legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Sativex, an inhaler that dispenses medical marijuana in mist form, is in the final stages of testing by the United Kingdom's Department of Health, a spokeswoman said.

Sativex's developer, GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company, hopes to sell medical pot in Western Europe and the Commonwealth countries, including Canada. The U.S. market is a 'long-term objective,' company spokesman Mark Rogerson says.

Sativex would be the first prescription drug that uses real marijuana extract and not a synthesized form. The product offers hope of pain relief to an estimated 110,000 MS sufferers in the United Kingdom.

Some say that by licensing the drug, the British government has confirmed pot's value in relieving pain. Others say that once government-approved marijuana is available, it will be more difficult to argue that disease sufferers should be permitted to grow or purchase marijuana for their own use.

'The government's spin will be that there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue (medical marijuana), and that (Sativex) proves it,' says Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The Washington-based group favors relaxing criminal penalties for all marijuana users.

Worldwide, an estimated 2.5 million people have multiple sclerosis, including 400,000 in the USA. It is a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system and can result in speech defects and loss of muscle coordination.

The Sativex device uses vapor distilled from marijuana plants grown under government supervision in southern England. It has proved successful in relieving the muscle and headache pain of a small number of test patients, according to trial results reviewed by the UK's Medicines and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency.

The product is sprayed under the tongue and is said to be especially effective because it is absorbed quickly and contains all of the marijuana plant's pain-relieving properties.

Other marijuana-related painkillers, such as the anti-nausea drug Marinol, contain synthetic versions of some but not all of the plant's pain-killing ingredients.

In the USA, Marinol pills have been available by prescription since 1985 for chemotherapy-related nausea and similar conditions.

When used in small doses, Sativex does not produce the mild euphoria that has made marijuana a popular recreational drug, GW Pharmaceuticals spokesman Rogerson says. But he acknowledges that it could be 'abused' through overuse.

To be sold in the USA, the Sativex inhaler would have to be tested and approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

But the device would probably face opposition from the Bush administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The administration argues that marijuana use is associated with a variety of health problems.

Since 2002, the administration has opposed initiatives to decriminalize medical marijuana in 13 states. All but one initiative failed. Ten states have laws that ease or eliminate penalties for using medical marijuana.

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