Cannabis could be given the green light as an NHS painkiller for 15 million people if trials are a success.
The “whole plant” substance is being tested by 5,000 people with chronic pain who will use inhalers to vaporise the drug on the health service.
Other countries such as Germany, Canada and Australia have already approved the treatments but the UK is lagging behind.
The NHS believes there is “some evidence medical cannabis can help certain types of pain, though this evidence is not yet strong enough to recommend it for pain relief”.
Tony Samios, of LVL Health, the company running the trial, believes the drug will be prescribed on the NHS within a few years.
It would cost £299 per month per patient and be delivered through tamper-proof cartridges.
Mr Samios said: “You have to take it all in one go, which takes up to five minutes, it’s not like you can puff on it all day long.
“You get the whole entourage effect of inhaling the whole flower but you’re not actually smoking it and obviously don’t have all the carcinogens.”
Around one in three adults in the UK are believed to suffer from chronic pain – defined as lasting more than three months.
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It is hoped cannabis treatments will stop people getting hooked on more addictive opioids or self medicating by buying from drug dealers.
Medicinal cannabis products often contain only one highly purified extract of the plant.
But there is growing demand for “whole-flower” medicines with all parts of the cannabis plant.
Campaign group End Our Pain claim these are better at treating seizures and pain.
Thousands in the UK fork out up to £2,000 a month to get the whole-plant medicines privately.
Cannabis was legalised in the UK for medical use in 2018 after the high-profile case of young epilepsy sufferer Alfie Dingley.
But the NHS still issues fewer than 100 prescriptions for cannabis-based medicine each month.
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