The University of Oxford is to head a multimillion-pound research program investigating the effects of medical marijuana on acute and chronic conditions.
The university will partner with private equity company Kingsley Capital Partners, which will provide up to £10 million (US$12.36 million) as a start-off investment to look into the use of medical cannabis.
The partnership aims to devise new treatments for people affected by cancer, chronic pain and inflammatory diseases.
“Cannabinoid research has started to produce exciting biological discoveries and this research program is a timely opportunity to increase our understanding of the role of cannabinoids in health and disease,” Ahmed Ahmed, professor of gynecological oncology at Oxford, said in a statement.
The announcement follows calls by some MPs to legalize the use of medical cannabis.
Someone caught with the Class B drug in the UK can be landed with a five-year prison sentence, although in some areas of the country it has essentially been decriminalized, as poorly resourced police forces focus on more serious offenses.
While the Tories and Labour have still not clarified their positions on the issue, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party have called for a temporary legalization of the drug for medical use.
Although cannabis is proven to alleviate pain for people affected by chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s, it is also linked to mental health problems.
Dr Zameel Cader, another member of the research team, pointed out that at no stage will the research be aimed at providing cannabis for smoking, which is normally associated with “unwanted effects.”
The research will instead concentrate on isolating the cannabinoids, compounds that are found not only in the plant but also in the human body, which give positive effects.
“The problem with smoking cannabis is that it’s associated with unwanted effects,” Cader was reported as saying on the BBC.
“So if you take cannabis when you’re young there seems to be an increased risk of developing problems like schizophrenia.
“What we know though is that there are cannabinoids both from the plant and the body that have beneficial effects.
“So the aim of the research program is to try and isolate those cannabinoids that are beneficial but don’t have the risk of psychiatric problems,” Cader said.
The study also has the backing of Star Trek and X-men actor Patrick Stewart, who used marijuana-based products to help his osteoarthritis.
“Two years ago, in Los Angeles I was examined by a doctor and given a note which gave me legal permission to purchase, from a registered outlet, cannabis-based products, which I was advised might help the osteoarthritis in both my hands,” he told the Telegraph.
The film star claims a chewy bar and ointment had helped him sleep, while a daytime spray had brought mobility back into his hands, allowing him to clench them into a fist.
He therefore “enthusiastically supports” Oxford’s research plan.
“This is an important step forward for Britain in a field of research that has for too long been held back by prejudice, fear and ignorance.”
As cannabis-based products are illegal in the UK, Cader said Stewart’s story is a testimony to how more research is needed to make them legal and regulated treatments.
“The fact that there are so many people who describe benefits with pain and with anxiety really shows the potential therapeutic value.
“What we really need to do is work out how we can harness that benefit without getting the unwanted side-effects.”
Asked whether the research could lower the risks arising from recreational drug use, and therefore clear the way for its legalization, Cader said: “It’s an interesting question.
“The kind of research that we’re aiming to do is to develop a medicine rather than try and increase the hedonistic effects of cannabinoid compounds.
“So I’m not sure the kind of medicines we’d be developing would substitute for recreational cannabinoids,” the doctor said.