Holland became the world's first country to make cannabis available as a prescription drug at local pharmacies, according to the Health Ministry on Monday.
"From September 1, 2003 pharmacies can provide medicinal cannabis to patients with a prescription from a doctor. Cannabis has a beneficial effect for many patients," the Health Ministry said.
Dutch doctors will be allowed to prescribe it to treat chronic pain, nausea and loss of appetite in cancer and HIV patients, to alleviate MS sufferers' spasm pains and reduce physical or verbal tics in people suffering Tourette's syndrome.
The administration has decided to make the drug widely available to chronically ill patients and put further pressure on countries like Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States to relax restrictions on its supply as a medicine.
A British drug firm pioneering cannabis spray medicine to give pain relief for multiple sclerosis patients is hoping to launch the product in Britain later this year.
Licence to grow drugs
Two companies in the Netherlands have been given licences to grow special strains of cannabis in laboratory-style conditions to sell to the Health Ministry, which in turn packages and labels the drug in small tubs to supply to pharmacies.
As well as pharmacies, 80 hospitals and 400 doctors will be allowed to dispense five gram doses of SIMM18 medical marijuana for $48 a tub and more potent Bedrocan at $58.
The Health Ministry recommends patients dilute the cannabis -- which will be in the form of dried marijuana flowers from the hemp plant rather than its hashish resin - in tea or turn it into a spray.
The association of HIV patients in the Netherlands welcomed the government's move to make cannabis available in high-street pharmacies.
"We are glad the government recognises that for some people it can improve the quality of life," said Robert Witlox, managing director of HIV Vereniging. The association has called on health insurers to cover the cost of the drug like any other.
The government, which recognised many chronically ill people were already buying cannabis from coffee shops, said it should only be prescribed by doctors when conventional treatments had been exhausted or if other drugs had side-effects.
The ministry estimates up to 7,000 people in the Netherlands have used cannabis for medical reasons, buying it in coffee shops. It said this could more than double once it was available from pharmacies in pure medicinal form.
Cannabis in history
Cannabis has a long history of medicinal use. It was used as a Chinese herbal remedy around 5,000 years ago, while Britain's Queen Victoria is said to have taken cannabis tincture for menstrual pains.
But it fell out of favour because of a lack of standardised preparations and the development of more potent synthetic drugs.
Critics argue that it has not passed sufficient scientific scrutiny at a time when researchers are trying to determine if it confers the medical benefits many users claim. Some doctors say it increases the risk of depression and schizophrenia.