Ireland gives green light to medical cannabis prescriptions in ‘milestone’ move

The move patients “reassurance” that their supply is guaranteed and “put on a proper statutory footing,” leftist MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan told EURACTIV [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Patients in Ireland will now for the first time be able to get medical cannabis via prescription, in what has been described as a “milestone” move expected to bring hope to many families, although barriers to access medical cannabis still remain.

While some medical cannabis products were legalised in the country a few years ago, this landmark decision now means that not only will patients be able to get medicinal cannabis on prescription, but that they will also be able to be reimbursed for this.

The move offers patients “reassurance” that their supply is guaranteed and “put on a proper statutory footing,” leftist MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan told EURACTIV, adding that this has previously caused distress to patients.

According to Eugene “Gino” Kenny, a parliament member for the Dublin Mid-West constituency and long-time campaigner on the issue, this is absolutely crucial given that this treatment sometimes is “prohibitively expensive” for people.

“This marks a milestone achievement for Ireland,” he told EURACTIV, adding that it offers hope to many “desperate families”, some of whom turn to other markets, including the black market, in a bid to secure the treatment for their children who suffer from conditions such as epilepsy. 

However, while he remains optimistic about the opportunities this will open up for patients, a number of barriers to access remain. 

Kenny explained that, as it stands, the medical cannabis access programme is currently far too restrictive, given that it is only open to patients with a limited number of conditions.

Most controversially, the programme does not yet include those suffering from chronic pain, he said, urging the Irish government to expand the scope of the offer to include this and a wider breadth of neurological conditions. 

This is despite the fact that these conditions are included in other EU programmes, such as in the Netherlands.

Flanagan also pointed out that, unlike Germany, Irish patients must have the medicine prescribed by a consultant, which he points out is cumbersome and leads to “unnecessary expense”.

However, despite this, Kenny remained confident that this will broaden out “quickly” over the coming years, pointing to a number of significant investments in the sector.

“Where the money goes, the market will follow,” he pointed out. 

EU should adopt German standards on medical cannabis, campaigners say

Germany’s regulatory approach to medical cannabis is good practice and should be replicated across Europe, according to newly-born European Medicinal Cannabis Association (EUMCA).

Medical cannabis requires ‘equal footing’ 

Another issue is that the programme stipulates that all other avenues of treatment must be explored before pursuing medical cannabis.

But this is not the right approach, according to Flanagan.

“There is a concern about the fact that patients can only use products licensed under the scheme where conventional treatments fail,” he said, stressing that  patients “should be offered cannabis-based treatments on an equal footing with other medicines.”

Likewise, Kenny highlighted that medical cannabis should not be seen as a last resort, but as one of the tools in the toolbox of treatments.

“If it is shown to be effective, then why not offer it alongside other treatment options?” he questioned, adding that more research is required to ensure all decisions are evidence-based.

Winds of change 

However, the parliamentarian remained hopeful that this would be a catalyst for further change in this area.

“This will get the ball rolling in terms of access to medical cannabis,” Kenny said. 

While the use of medicinal cannabis remains controversial and misunderstood, he said the dynamic is “dramatically” changing.

Pointing to a recent survey in Ireland which found that 92% of respondents would favour the legalisation of medical cannabis, Kenny highlighted that attitudes in medicine and politics, as well as, civic society are shifting.

“While many medics were – and still are – sceptical, we have seen the debate shift over the past few years as it becomes more obvious the benefits that this treatment can offer,” he said, adding that, for many children suffering from epilepsy and other conditions, this treatment can be “transformational”.

As such, he predicts that mindsets across not only the EU, but across the world, will be a completely different picture in a few years time. 

But this remains an uphill battle, according to Flanagan. 

“All countries in the EU have much they could learn from the US on this,” he said, pointing out that the medicine is far more accessible and is permitted for use with a far more extensive range of illnesses. 

“We need to get to that point sooner rather than later. In particular for patients with chronic pain,” he urged. 

EU market for medical cannabis still far from full bloom

A temporary shortage of Dutch hemp flowers intended for export to Germany has put the spotlight on a lack of diversified supply sources and uniform quality standards in the growing European market for medical cannabis.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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