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Marguerite Arnold

Carry On Cannabis: UK Parliament Debates Reform (Again)

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

The British Parliament considered a new right last Friday – the right of chronically ill patients to treat their conditions with cannabinoids. The bill to reform the law and allow medical use, the Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill 2017-19 was also re-read. It was first introduced last October.

While reformers at this point are loath to do any more than publicly hope, events in the UK continue to unfold in favour of reform.

This time, it is in the wake of a highly upsetting and embarrassing incident that further highlights the human toll of prohibition. When the British Home Office (a combination of the State Department, Homeland Security and a few other federal U.S. agencies) refuses cannabis oil to six year-old Britons with epilepsy named Alfie, don’t expect the famed stiff upper lip in response.

Not anymore.Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy? 

Especially not when the rest of the EU is moving forward, Canada and Australia (both countries are a part of the British Commonwealth) are now firmly in the medical camp with Canada moving ahead with recreational use this summer. Not to mention continuing reform on both fronts in many U.S. states. Even with setbacks that include the Trump White House and Justice Department (the recently dismissed federal case in New York being just the latest casualty), recreational reform in California is an international beacon of change that will not go quietly into the night. Not now.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Dingley case in the UK, in sharp contrast, is how fast Parliament responded to the plight of the six-year-old and his mother. Not only has Dingley’s medical import license been reconsidered in Parliament, but the matter appears to have finally galvanized significant numbers of the British elected class to do something about an appalling situation that affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Brits too.

Cannabis Medical Refugees

Medical refugee policy, especially around cannabinoids, is at least as controversial as the other kind. In Europe and the rest of the world, just like cannabis reform itself, these are national, not state issues as they have been in the U.S., (where the issue of cannabis patient state “refugees” has nonetheless been an issue for most of this decade).

Outside of the U.S., however, it is still the case that national governments can be embarrassed into reform with the right case (or groups of them).

epidiolex
GW Pharma said their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency

That was certainly true in Israel in 2014, when the so-called “15 Families” threatened to emigrate from Israel to Colorado unless the government allowed them to treat their sick kids (federal government policy was changed within a month). Not to mention an internal, state to state migration of families in the United States to Colorado around the same time.

It may also be true in this latest British case. The Home Office has been embroiled in a few embarrassing take backs of late, mostly on the topic of immigration of people. The Alfie-Dingley cannabis case hits both medical cannabis reform and lingering buyer’s remorse over Brexit where the British people actually live (and on topics they actually care about).

Refusing at least medical cannabis rights in the UK might also well tip the scales in favour of a redo on Brexit. Or at least capture the support of people who still dream of that possibility. While the UK is still part of the continent, British citizens also have the right to travel freely, with medical rights intact, to other countries and get treatment. The British are no strangers to this idea (in fact, many British retirees end up in Spain and Greece for precisely this reason). Add cannabis to the mix, and current British policy looks even more out of step with reality and the wishes of the British people. Even the older, more conservative and “middle class” (read: American working if not blue-collar class) ones.

Local Production and Prohibition

And then of course, there is this irony. GW Pharmaceuticals, one of the oldest, cannabis companies in the world, is located in the UK. It even grows its own crops there, and has a special license from the British government to do so.

Worse, in this particular situation, it also is busy bringing several cannabinoid-based anti-epileptic drugs (for children and adults) to the market.GW logo

Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy? And how could a government grant a license to a company to develop the plant for profit, but not a child who desperately needs the drug to live?

In a move that seems more than coincidence, GW Pharma also reported this week that their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency, while a separate drug also bound for the epilepsy market called GWP42006 had just failed a Phase IIa trial for focal seizures.

The business press of course, has mostly reported that the only impact of this development so far of course, is that the company took a hit on share price.

It might do a bit more than that. Starting with legislative reform and ending with the sparking of significant home-grown (and legal) competition.

The combined impact of a failed trial in Eastern Europe by the only British company licensed and qualified to produce medicinal cannabinoids for any reason, and the plight of a British boy at home who needs precisely this kind of drug (and has so far been denied it), might in fact be the tinder match that lights political and market reform if not the development of a cannabis industry (finally) in Great Britain.

If this doesn’t, probably nothing will.

Greece Moves Forward on Legalizing Medical Use

By Marguerite Arnold
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The Greek Parliament is finally expected to approve the medical use of cannabis – probably in the first weeks of February. The move is far from a surprise. Greek politicians announced last summer that this development was in the cards.

What is even more promising for the sector domestically, not to mention in terms of European reform, is the unflinching acceptance of this industry by the establishment and national politicians, and further as one with great economic development potential for a still-ailing economy.

A $2 Billion Injection of Capital

Deputy Agricultural Development Minister Yannis Tsironis (for one) has already publicly expressed his hope that the Greek medical program will attract beaucoups bucks from overseas.

However given the context in which this announcement has taken place, is this seriously a commitment to medical cannabis? Or is it an easy (if not slightly buzzy) way to attract foreign capital to a Mediterranean paradise still in dire need of a capital injection from any source it can get one?

Deputy Agricultural Development Minister Yannis Tsironis

Maybe it is a combination of both.

Many in Europe are forecasting that 2018 might finally be the light at the end of the tunnel for the Greek economy, which has been mired in austerity for the last decade. The Greek government is now in the process of moving forward with the final requirements of both labour reforms and receiving what is hoped to be the last bailout of its economy by foreign investors before it finally goes it alone by August 2018.

The Greek economy finally grew 1.5% last year. In 2018, in part thanks to the final package of reforms, the economy is expected to grow by 2.4%.

A foreign-financed medical cannabis business might be just what the economists have ordered. Especially if it is also open to visitors.

Medical Marijuana on Mykonos?

The development of a domestic medical cannabis industry in Greece is good news for not only medical reformers but also those who are looking for ways to expand the influence of the flower into the broader economy.

And Greece is one place where such ideas could easily and quickly take root in Europe.

Mykonos, the Greek island
Image: Maggie Meng, Flickr

Greece has long been the haven for a highly niche, international tourist audience. Tourism in general has also been on the uptick over the last two years again as particularly Europeans look for relatively cheaper beaches and sunshine. Over 30 million foreign tourists flocked to the country last summer – a number of people roughly three times the population of the country.

Again, mainstreamed medical cannabis would only add to the economic results in a way that is just as heady if not (economically) stimulating as a good sativa.

The idea of a medical tourism industry here, could also potentially create not only a Greek medical paradise, but potentially also have a growth impact on European cannabis programs too. Especially if reciprocal medical rights we

re also offered to EU citizens looking for an extended canna-friendly vacation.

Greek Cannabis Club Med?

Of all the countries in Europe, the Greek cannabis experiment offers the first real chance for a Canadian/American style cannabis industry to begin to flourish in Europe. In colder, more northern European countries, medical cannabis is still being treated as an expensive adjunct to traditional healthcare. And no matter how much citizens are moving towards acceptance of a recreational industry down the road, things are moving much slower in the rest of Europe. Germany, to put things in perspective, passed medical reform several months before the Greek decision to legalize medical use last summer. Yet now it appears that Greece might actually move into a full-fledged, domestically grown industry before its Teutonic neighbour to the north.

Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Photo: Kristoffer Trolle

And further, unlike Germany, Greece may well decide to develop its “medical cannabis industry” as an adjunct to its tourist industry.

Sure, Holland and Spain led the way in this part of the world if not internationally. Neither country, however, needs new industries now in the same dire way, nor is emerging from a national, decade-long recession.

All the elements are here, in other words, for the Greeks to turn a new page in their very long and documented history, and do something a little different.

Soapbox

Poland Legalizes Medical Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Poland has now legalized cannabis for medical purposes.

That said, it will be some time before patients have access to the drug. While Poles can now technically access medical pot, the scheme approved by the Polish Parliament that went into effect on November 1st is regressive, to say the least. Certainly compared with even other countries in Europe that are now finally admitting that cannabis is a drug with medical efficacy, the Polish experiment looks “old-fashioned.”

What Does Medical Cannabis Reform Look Like in Poland?

Like most conservative countries, Poland is sticking with a highly restrictive approach that still puts patients in the hot seat. In addition to getting a doctor’s prescription, the chronically ill must be approved by a state authority – a regional pharmaceutical inspector. They must get a license first, in other words. They must then find about $500 a month to pay for cannabis. To put this in perspective, that is roughly the total amount such patients get from the state to live on each month.

Warsaw, Poland
Image: Nikos Roussos, Flickr

The multiple steps mean that only patients with financial resources– and an illness which is chronic but still allows them to negotiate the many government hurdles, including cost –will now be able to access medical cannabis. Unlike Germany which makes no such distinctions, Polish law now recognizes the drug as an effective form of treatment only for chronic pain, chemo-induced nausea, MS and drug-resistant epilepsy.

The heavily amended legislation also outlaws home growing. And while 90% of pharmacies will be able to dispense the drug, this is again, a technicality. Where will the pharmacies get the cannabis in the first place?

So the question remains: will this step really mean reform? There is no medical cultivation planned. And no companies (yet) have been licensed to import the drug.

This is what is clear. Much like the conversation in Georgia and other southern American states several years ago, legislators are bowing to popular demand if not scientific evidence, to legalize medical use. But patients still cannot get it – even if they jump through all the hoops.

In Poland, patients who cannot find legal cannabis in the country (which is all of them at this point) now do have the right to travel to other EU countries in search of medicine. But the unanswered question in all of this is still present. How, exactly is this supposed to work? Patients must come up with the money to pay for their medical cannabis (at local prices) plus regular transportation costs. Then they must pay sky high fees to access local doctors (if they can find them) at “retail cost” uncovered by any insurance.

The issue of countries legalizing cannabis on paper, but not in action, is a problem now facing legalization advocates in the EUThe most obvious route for Polish patients with resources and the ability to travel is Germany. The catch? Medical cannabis costs Just on this front, the idea of regular country hopping for script refills – even if “just” across the border – is ludicrous. And who protect such patients legally if caught at the border, with a three month supply?

Poland, in other words, has adopted something very similar to Georgia’s regulations circa 2015. Medical cannabis is now technically legal but still inaccessible because of cost and logistics. Reform, Polish-style, appears to actually just be more window-dressing.

And while it is an obvious step for the country to start issuing import licenses to Canadian, Israeli and Australian exporters, how long will that take?

The Next Step Of Reform – Unfettered Patient Access

While things are still bad in Poland, right across the border in Germany where presumably Polish patients could theoretically buy their medical cannabis, all is still not copacetic. Even for the “locals.” Germany’s situation remains dire. But even before legalization in March, Germany was importing bud cannabis from Holland and began a trickle of imports last summer from Canada. That trickle has now expanded considerably with new import licences this year. And presumably, although nobody is sure, there will be some kind of domestic cultivation by 2019.

At Deutsche Hanfverband’s Cannabis Normal activist’s conference in Berlin held on the same weekend as Poland decided to legalize medical cannabis, a Gen X patient expressed his frustration with the situation of legalization in general. Oliver Waack-Jurgensen is now suing his German public insurer. He expects to wait another year and a half before he wins. In the meantime, he is organizing other patients. “They [political representatives] are bowing to political expediency but completely ignoring patient needs,” says Waack-Jurgensen. “How long is this conversation going to take? I am tired of it. Really, really tired of this.”

The issue of countries legalizing cannabis on paper, but not in action, is a problem now facing legalization advocates in the EU and elsewhere who have achieved legislative victories, but still realize this is an unfinished battle. Germany is the only country in Europe with a federal mandate to cover the drug under insurance (for Germans only). And that process is taking time to implement.But even in Germany, patients are having to sue their insurance companies

Germany, Italy and Turkey are also the only countries in Europe as of now with any plans to grow the drug domestically under a federally mandated regulation scheme. Import from Holland, Canada and even Australia appears to be the next step in delaying full and unfettered reform in Europe. See Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. How Spanish or Portuguese-grown cannabis will play into this discussion is also an open question mark. Asking Polish patients suffering from cancer to “commute” to Portugal is also clearly unfeasible.

Unlike the United States, however, European countries do have public healthcare systems, which are supposed to cover the majority of the population. What gives? And what is likely to happen?

A Brewing Battle At The EU Human Rights Court?

While the Polish decision to “legalize” medical use is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. If the idea is to halt the black market trade, giving patients real access is a good idea. But even in Germany, patients are having to sue their insurance companies. And are now doing so in large numbers. In a region where lawsuits are much less common than the U.S., this is shocking enough.

But the situation is so widespread and likely to continue for some time, that class action lawsuits – and on the basis of human rights violations over lack of access to a life-saving drug – may finally come to the continent and at an EU (international) level court.

Patients are literally dying in the meantime. And those who aren’t are joining the calls for hunger strikes and other direct civil action. Sound far-fetched? There is legal precedent. See Mexico.

And while Poland may or may not be the trigger for this kind of concerted legal action, this idea is clearly gathering steam in advocacy circles across Europe.