By Jeanne Whalen, Staff Reporter
Source: Wall Street Journal

As some popular painkillers come under fire for causing dangerous side effects, an often-shunned alternative is gaining legitimacy in pain relief: cannabis.

Medical marijuana has been winning legal endorsement through the efforts of a British pharmaceutical firm. GW Pharmaceuticals of Salisbury, England, has spent years developing and promoting a cannabis-based mouth spray that the company claims eases severe pain and muscle stiffness without causing a psychotropic high.

Winning the backing of health authorities has been an uphill battle, but Canadian officials recently gave it preliminary approval for treatment of neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis sufferers. Studies concluded not long ago also showed the product effective at treating severe cancer pain.

Now GW is aiming for approval in the United Kingdom, and longer-term, in the U.S., where medical marijuana is likely to come up against greater resistance. "The deepness and polarity of the [marijuana] debate in the U.S. is unique," acknowledges Geoffrey Guy, executive chairman of GW. GW hopes the Canadian approval "will force the U.S. to address this issue once and for all and make a decision," says Managing Director Justin Gover. If the product is approved in more markets, GW believes it one day could be used by a million patients suffering from pain associated with MS, cancer and other ailments.

The treatment, called Sativex, is an extract of a hybrid form of cannabis grown by GW. The company says the plants are specially bred to remove most of the psychotropic agents and to increase the presence of helpful properties such as cannabidiol. The company, which won a special license from the U.K. to breed cannabis and carry out research, grows 50,000 plants every year in greenhouses in a location it keeps secret so as to avoid curiosity seekers, protesters and potheads.

Founded in 1998 to research the medicinal uses of cannabis, GW is traded on the London Stock Exchange. The company has a few other cannabis-derived products in early development.

Richard Payne, a 56-year-old Briton with multiple sclerosis, began taking Sativex three years ago as part of a clinical trial and says the medicine helps relieve his muscle stiffness and gives him better bladder control. It also has alleviated the violent muscle spasms that used to keep him awake at night.