Heady days ahead?

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Medical research has conclusively proved cannabis's potential as treatment for pain, nerve injury, nausea associated with chemotherapy and physical wasting related to aids. But outdated regulations and attitudes hace always come in the way of legitimate research on it. As a result, when patients with difficult-to-treat ailments use the plant, law renders them criminals.

Maybe not anymore With Canadian regulators recently agreeing to look into at the merits of a medical preparation based on cannabis, medical marijuana advocates may have scored a victory of sorts. Canada will decide whether to approve an under-the-tongue spray called Sativex to help multiple sclerosis patients fight muscle spasms and relieve pain. Should the green signal be given, the spray, developed by British firm gw Pharmaceuticals, may reach drug stores in a few months. The company has also sought approval to test Sativex in Australia and New Zealand. The uk is also expected to follow the Canadian line.

Old conundrum Cannabis has been indicted for its effect on mental health: in some users it can trigger delusions and hallucinations, and there is debate about whether it can cause longer-term psychiatric problems. In the 20th century, governments in most developed countries responded to what they saw as the growing menace of cannabis by outlawing it. It vanished from the us Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary in 1941, and the British National Formulary in 1971.

But scientists, particularly in the us and the uk, have been vociferously arguing to making cannabis available for research and medicinal applications. In the us, any scientist wanting to research with cannabis has to procure the plant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (nida). However, scientists crib that what nida provides is less potent, and so medicinally less interesting.

Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam discovered in 1964 that a chemical substance called tetrahydrocannabinol (thc) present in cannabis is responsible for the kick it gives. Since then, scientists have identified 60 other related chemicals in cannabis, collectively called cannabinoids.

While cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug (most tightly restricted category) alongside lsd and heroin in the us, the uk in 2004 reclassified it to a less stringent category, invoking the wrath of several nongovernmental organisations working in the area of health. Organisations such as Rethink and Sane charged the Tony Blair government with "sending confusing signals' to young people and extracted a promise from the uk government to commission an expert review of all the academic and clinical evidence of the link between cannabis use and mental health, particularly schizophrenia.

The above incident is typical to the controversy that dogs cannabis. It makes one wonder: what will be the reaction if Canada gives the go-ahead? Watch this space.