This is a matter of enormous importance because it affects the suffering of many thousands of people in Britain. By a simple decision made now by the Minister, we can today not take any path that is new or daring but go back to the position that existed in 1971. By doing so, we will decriminalise not the recreational use of cannabis but many people who use cannabis now because they regard it as essential for their needs or their family needs. Those people will stop being branded as criminals. Now they seem to be breaking the law.
Perhaps it is best to say what we are not proposing or debating this afternoon. There is no question of any proposal to decriminalise cannabis or increase its availability as a recreational drug. Neither is there a proposal to make cannabis available as a medicine on every chemist's counter for every minor complaint such as headaches, stomach aches or whatever. We are urging the Minister and the Government today to allow cannabis to be prescribed for a certain number of identifiable conditions that are all serious. Those conditions are multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, the effects of chemotherapy, cerebral palsy, spasm and terminal illnesses.
We know that a strong demand for decriminalisation is coming from the association that has been set up to make the point. The demand rightly comes not from politicians but from patients, from the families of patients and from the medical profession. We are debating the matter today because a meeting of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics took place in October last year at which I believe that the Minister was present. He answered questions at the meeting and he has answered parliamentary questions on the matter.
We want to take the issue forward from what was said at that meeting. I understand that it was a friendly meeting and people shared a great deal of common ground. An all-party group went along to the meeting. It included members of two parties and a letter of support was sent by a third party. Today I have received expressions of support from hon. Members in all parties in the House. So the matter is not party political.
The Government agree with our main case, which is that cannabis is effective in relieving pain. There is a wealth of evidence that for certain patients afflicted by one of the illnesses that I have mentioned cannabis provides a unique palliative for the torments of pain. The measures that we advocate can be introduced without interfering with Government policy. We accept the reality of Government policy on all drugs, but we believe that our argument today chimes precisely with Government policies on drugs, Home Office policies and even the Government's policies on deregulation and choice.
At the meeting with the alliance, the Government side accepted the therapeutic qualities of drugs. Their objections included one from the Home Office that any move to allow cannabis to be prescribed therapeutically would send a wrong signal to the rest of the country. The Government representatives also said that the Department of Health did not want to give any approval to smoking. I believe that those arguments can be answered well.
Cannabis was prescribed until 1971. Whatever signal was given then had no apparent effect. There was not a sudden rash of cannabis taking or abuse because it was prescribed to a small number of people, just as it would be prescribed if our plea today was accepted. There is clearly an understanding in the minds of the public and the medical profession of the distinction between cannabis for recreational use and cannabis for therapeutic use.
No poll of any great merit has ever suggested that recreational use of cannabis is regarded by the majority of the public as desirable. However, a poll in The Independent some time ago showed that 75 per cent. of all doctors and 70 per cent. of the general public wanted to see cannabis prescribed therapeutically. So the distinction exists in people's minds. We do not have to worry about wrong signals.
I agree entirely with Ministers about smoking. No one in the House wants to increase the number of smokers of anything—herbs, tobacco or cannabis. Smoking any substance brings the same problems of bronchitis and heart disease, even if not cancer, but that is not the point. We know that cannabis can be used in a variety of ways. A vaporiser is used in America. There are inhalers. Cannabis can be taken in the form of a food, a drink, a patch or a tincture. Those are all acceptable ways to divorce therapeutic use from the recreational use of cannabis. So smoking is not the problem.
Distinguished scientists attended the meeting at the Department of Health. Professor Wall, a distinguished scientist at St. Thomas's, gave interesting evidence on which he has since enlarged on—I hesitate to use the word—endogenous receptors in the brain. He made the point that the arguments were not the same old arguments which were about in the 1970s and 1960s. When cannabis was withdrawn, it was not because it was thought that prescribing it sent the wrong signals but because it was used only as a sedative at that time. Various other sedatives were available, so there was no need to prescribe cannabis as a sedative.
New knowledge about cannabis has been discovered in the past 25 years. According to the theory of endogenous receptors, our brains can produce one of the active elements in cannabis. We are all familiar with the odd moments of unexplained joy and euphoria that we have from time to time—frequently in the House, of course. Our bodies are remarkably clever machines. They can produce all kinds of chemicals, including many painkillers. So we know that there is a natural source of an element of cannabis in our bodies.
One of the objections, strangely enough, to the derivative of cannabis that has been used—nabaline—is that, although it is a part of cannabis, it has caused more problems than natural cannabis. So there is a strong case for using cannabis in its natural state. Dr. William Northcott, who is an expert in treatment of pain and runs a pain clinic, said that he saw many patients who did not respond in any way to conventional medicine, but who obtained relief as a result of cannabis, which he could not prescribe, although he routinely prescribed much more powerful and addictive drugs, including heroine and cocaine. So the mild, non-addictive drug is banned and the more powerful addictive drugs are permitted—and used in enormous quantities.
The Government have used the argument about willow bark, which is an interesting one. They say that cannabis is a complex substance, and it is indeed complex. There was a time when people sucked willow bark to obtain the active substance in it, which is aspirin. We can go on from there and say that we cannot delay any longer removing the ban on cannabis. It is used today by thousands of people. It has been used since the time of the Assyrians. It has been used for at least 5,000 years. The people who built the pyramids in Egypt knew that cannabis was good for eyes. It was used for what is now known as glaucoma. It reduces the pressure in the eyes by as much as a third. The Egyptians knew that then. We lost that knowledge. It was a forgotten medicine, but we know about it now. It was used by tens of millions of people in every continent for thousands of years. There is not one case of anyone being poisoned by it or having a toxic reaction to it.
We need more research. I am sure that the Minister will say that in his speech. We need to understand which of the substances in cannabis are psychoactive and which are analgesic. But that is no excuse for delaying allowing cannabis to be used in its natural form.