I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) for raising the issue and to hon. Members of both parties for chipping in. I am also grateful for the kind comments which I imagine have something to do with those moments of high joy and ecstasy that the human brain can experience and to which reference has been made.
This is a serious matter which affects many people. There is a great deal of pain, but there is also a great deal of hope that cannabis may become available as a prescribed drug. I understand that, but, in the short time available, I must set out the Government's position. I shall not dwell on the recreational misuse of cannabis. On the basis of what the hon. Member for Newport, West said, I think that he and I agree about that. I shall deal with the therapeutic use of cannabis.
We have received a number of representations claiming that cannabis is effective in treating some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other conditions, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In October, I met the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), Lord Whaddon and representatives of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics to hear the case that cannabis should be made available for medicinal use. I agreed then to give careful consideration to the points put to me. Since then, the hon. Gentleman has written to me and acknowledged that it is not something to be rushed, although we need to move as fast as is sensible.
The therapeutic use of cannabis is a complex issue. It may be helpful if I deal more fully with some of the important considerations related to it. Under section 7 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, cannabis and certain other controlled drugs, such as raw opium and coca leaf, have been designated as drugs which it is in the public interest for their production, supply and possession to be either wholly unlawful or unlawful except for the purpose of research or other special purposes, or for it to be unlawful for doctors to prescribe or supply except under licence from the Home Secretary. The controls imposed by the Act conform with the international restrictions covering those drugs.
It has of course been claimed—and it may be so—that specific medical conditions could be improved by the use of cannabis, but everyone agrees that we need to consider such a claim carefully before deciding to allow the use of cannabis as a prescribed drug. As for any other unlicensed product, the supporting data would need to be presented to the Medicines Control Agency, which in the usual way would evaluate any application made to it by a sponsor seeking a product licence. I understand, that if a product licence were issued by the MCA, the 1971 Act controls could be modified to make such a medicine available to patients. Any change in the controls would not, of course, extend to non-medical use.
I have heard it said that cannabis was available for many centuries, and certainly for medicinal use prior to 1973, so its legal use could simply be reinstated. That is not possible. The decision to stop the medicinal use of cannabis was based on the evidence available at the time, which was that cannabis was no more effective than other available drugs and followed on from the advice of the World Health Organisation at the time. Since 1973, all drugs currently on prescription have undergone a stringent review of their safety, efficacy and quality, and it would be wrong simply to reinstate cannabis without such a review being undertaken. A company seeking a product licence would therefore have to present evidence of the drug's safety, efficacy and quality to the MCA in the usual way.
There are side effects from the use of cannabis. There is convincing evidence that for some people cannabis gives rise to acute and transient mental disturbance and may be implicated in drug-induced serious mental—or psychotic—illness. For regular long-term users, there is some research evidence of damage to the testes, liver and lungs. It is not a matter of dispute that in the short term cannabis can make users light-headed and unable to concentrate, which can affect their ability to drive a vehicle, operate machinery or make sound decisions affecting work, leisure or daily living. The more potent version of cannabis—skunk cannabis—has a higher level of tetrahydro-cannabinol. Because THC is fat-soluble, it tends to accumulate and can damage organs.
Most drugs have side effects, and a relevant consideration—