It’s been said that there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. The adage is perhaps never more accurate than when applied to medical marijuana in Ireland.
We have come a long way over the past several years, from when I introduced the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill in 2016 to the recent introduction of the Cannabis Access Programme. It has taken a wonderful display of human solidarity and decency, but the campaign to have cannabis-based products made available for prescription has finally convinced the Irish government to distribute cannabis to people who need it for medicinal purposes.
This movement that accomplished this was spearheaded by people like Vera Twomey, a mother from Cork. Vera’s daughter Ava suffers from intractable epilepsy and after years of Ava being failed by standard epilepsy medication, her mother was compelled to try cannabis as a treatment. Ava Barry’s story caught the imagination of the Irish public, and the Irish public began to see cannabis as a genuine medical intervention.
Nevertheless, the Irish government was slow to establish the Medical Cannabis Access Programme. Over the past few years, their ongoing opposition to my efforts to legislate for medicinal cannabis speaks to their lack of comfort in seeing cannabis a useful in medical treatments. My bill was originally passed by a majority in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), but sadly, the government blocked its progression. Despite concerted efforts by me and my fellow People Before Profit colleagues, it did not proceed any further.
However, I am delighted to have played a part in what has been a very protracted process to get to this milestone development of the scheduling of two certified pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis products.
The Chronic Problem
While I acknowledge that the establishment of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme is a step in the right direction and will potentially provide access for people with the qualifying conditions, it is still highly restrictive. To date, not one person in the state has been prescribed under the programme. This seems extraordinary giving that the programme was first suggested in early 2017.
The condition which appears to respond most positively to medical cannabis, and for which there is the most compelling research and evidence as to its efficacy, is chronic pain. Unfortunately, the Health Products Regulatory Authority has decided to omit this from the short list of conditions for which cannabis can be prescribed by a consultant. I accept that chronic pain is a complex issue, but its omission from the specified condition list is very disappointing given that across the world it is the most common reason for prescribing medical cannabis.
The specified conditions in the access programme are: spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis; intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy; severe, refractory (treatment-resistant) epilepsy. While it is good news for the people suffering from these conditions, sadly there is a large cohort of people for whom more conventional drugs, with often very serious side effects, do not provide the relief that they need.
According to a report in the Irish Times, 1.65 million people in Ireland suffer with chronic pain. This is a staggering number. Anecdotally, people with chronic pain often contact me because they are in the most desperate situations. They speak of being in the most horrendous pain with little or no benefit obtained from the opioids they are regularly prescribed. They talk about the impact on their quality of life, mental health and their relationships with family and friends. For the government to exclude these people from the Medical Cannabis Access Programme is not only shocking but also illogical.
The government really have two options as far as I can see. The first, pass the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill so people can gain access to medicinal cannabis to treat their pain. If that isn’t in line with the government’s priorities, then the second option is to include chronic pain and other conditions on the Medical Cannabis Access Programme.
It’s inevitable that thousands of people will be prescribed medical cannabis in the future. You only have to observe other jurisdictions where the use of medical cannabis as a treatment is routine. In time, the Irish people will look back and be left with no other option but to lambast those who made it so difficult for the many who stand to benefit.