Canada has become the first country in the world to approve a cannabis-based painkiller (search) for patients suffering multiple sclerosis (search), a move applauded by those with the disease and proponents of medical uses for marijuana.
Health Canada (search), the federal agency that oversees medical care for Canadians, announced on Tuesday it had approved the prescription painkiller Sativex (search), made from components derived from the cannabis plant that have been shown to ease pain.
The British drug company GW Pharmaceuticals, which developed the drug, said Canada is the first country to grant regulatory approval for Sativex, which will be marketed in Canada by Bayer HealthCare and could be in pharmacies by summer. The drug can be sprayed under the tongue or inside the cheek, avoiding the carcinogenic dangers of smoking pot.
Medical professionals voice high hopes for the drug's success.
"The pain (of multiple sclerosis) can be absolutely excruciating and very debilitating," said Judith H. Watt-Watson, a professor at the University of Toronto's Center for the Study of Pain. "There's an urgent need for more options."
Many people with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, treat their pain by smoking marijuana. But the dose is hard to regulate and the drug is difficult to obtain legally.
About 50,000 Canadians and 400,000 Americans have MS and some 2.5 million people are believed to be afflicted worldwide, according to the New York-based National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
About half of MS patients suffer from chronic pain.
"It's hard to explain to someone who has never felt this type of pain," said Steve Walsh of Ontario, who suffers from MS and was eager to try the new drug. "It's like being plugged into an electric socket all the time. At times, putting on clothes or anything touching me can be too much to take."
He told The Globe and Mail that he's smoked marijuana in an attempt to ease his pain, but didn't like the feeling of being out of control.
Dr. Allan Gordon, a neurologist and director of the Wasser Pain Management Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said that because Sativex is administered as a spray, t provides controlled doses and allows the patient to decide how much he or she needs.
Proponents of legalizing medicinal marijuana are hailing the new drug.
"This confirms that virtually everything the U.S. government has told us about marijuana is wrong," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.. The organization is fighting to have marijuana legalized for medical use. "This product offers patients and doctors a new option and we hope Americans will have access to it soon."
In the United States, the federal government has classified marijuana as a drug that is as dangerous as heroine, although 10 states have passed laws that allow its use under medical supervision.
In 2001, Canada became the first country to adopt a system regulating the medicinal use of marijuana for people suffering from terminal illnesses and chronic conditions.