Much has been said and written about the hemp plant and its medicinal uses. Although China experimented with hemp as medicine as far back at 2800 BC and cannabis therapies in Western medical practice date back to the 1800s many countries are still cautious about exploiting its potential. The Czech Republic is a case in point. Although earlier this year the authorities approved the use of a cannabis-based medicine, the British-made Sativex, the use of hemp for medical purposes remains illegal. Despite this, thousands of patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and other serious illnesses are using it to improve the quality of their lives.
Now a group of doctors, scientists and patients have launched a petition urging the authorities to legalize the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and decriminalize a practice that is helping many seriously ill people to deal with their health problems. At the petition’s launch on Tuesday Tomáš Zábranský a leading drugs expert from Charles University explained what’s at the centre of the problem.
“The situation is such that we have tens of thousands of people who are suffering from a serious illness –this is not a one-day headache we are talking about – who are trying to treat themselves with cannabis and they are all taking a serious legal risk because they are violating the law. If you grow cannabis in a small amount you are committing a misdemeanour, if it is more than five plants it is a criminal act for which you can be sent to jail which for an ill person is double punishment. If you buy cannabis –it is a crime, if you distribute it – it is a crime. So they are taking a legal risk even if the police are mostly smart enough not to imprison these people, but what they have to do is seize the drugs they have and then they are left without their pharmaceutical, quasi-pharmaceutical drug, without their medication.
And then there is a health risk. Because it is illegal to prescribe it –it is outside the medical system – people treat themselves on their own, according to what they heard, what they found on the Internet or what they came across in a book, which might work and then again it might not. And it might harm these people. Because it is illegal there is no medical supervision, no information with regard to possible side effects etc. And even if they experience no negative side effects there is another risk. Because people who are not able to grow cannabis themselves will get it on the black market where there is no guarantee of quality. They can obtain marihuana which was heavily fertilized, which can contain lead and other things which the dealers put into it to increase the weight and maximize their profits. And all this can actually harm their health, especially that of people who have problems with immunity who far more vulnerable than healthy people. So we are putting those people at double risk – a legal risk and a health risk – and that is not good, right?”
According to estimates there are tens of thousands of chronically ill patients acquiring cannabis for medicinal use by whatever means possible – some buy it on the black market, others try to grow it themselves and some visit the Prague-based Hemp-is-Healing clinic where a small group of people produce cannabis extracts that they offer to patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and other chronic illnesses. The clinic’s head and founder Dušan Dvořák has even landed a 28-months suspended sentence for the activity. Tomas Zábranský says there’s no logic to the present policy.
“OK, it is a stigmatized drug - like many others, like opium. But I can prescribe opium for you – if as a doctor I think it can improve your condition I can do it. The same goes for morpheme –I could prescribe that as well. That is also a stigmatized drug. So it is a complete mystery to me as to why I cannot prescribe cannabis.”
Tomáš Zábranský and the organizers of the petition have made it clear that they are not pushing for the legalization of marihuana as a recreational drug – but are asking MPs to legalize the use of cannabis as a drug in what would be a strictly controlled process and would give those patients who respond well to it the chance to lead better lives – with less pain and possibly improved mobility. Maria Opltová of the Czech Parkinson Society who organized the first help centre for people with Parkinson’s disease in Prague says time is of crucial importance here. She herself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 11 years ago.
“We have no time to spare. We simply have to trust that lawmakers will act as soon as possible. Many of our patients are in the final stage of the disease when it affects their speech and other basic functions. Cannabis could bring relief and is known to have helped people as old as 80 make an improvement. This is a unique chance to help us subdue or problems and lead a dignified life for a few more years. So please – we need this badly –the sooner the better.”
The present law has also stopped research into the medical properties of cannabis here in the Czech Republic – for the simple reason that it would be illegal for scientists to grow or acquire the plants. Tomáš Zábranský says this is a paradox since Czech scientists stood at the cradle of cannabis research here in Europe.
“Worldwide this research is blossoming –not least with participation from Czech researchers –one of the most famous and successful being prof.Lumir Hanuš who is unfortunately active in Jerusalem and not in Olomouc at his alma mater. And there are more people like him all around the world. So we are blocking research by this provision which goes far beyond what is required internationally and we are losing competitiveness in an area which we actually were founders of. In the 1950s research into the medical properties of cannabis started in this country in the city of Olomouc –led by the team of prof. Kabelík and prof. Šantavý – incidentally prof. Hanuš was a student of theirs.”
The respective legislation is currently on the table - being reviewed in view of necessary amendments - and the advocates of cannabis for medical use see this as an opportunity that may not arise for several more years. They hope to see the petition signed by as many people as possible – opinion polls suggest 78 to 82 percent of the public would support the legislative change – and if all goes well an amendment to the law could come into force as of next year. Here is how Tomáš Zábranský would see things in practice.
“If I look around at countries where the system is already in place –and where it is in full accord with international treaties and conventions –Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Israel and others – then there should be “growers” who would grow it in controlled conditions who would be supervised by a state organization –something like the Food and Drug administration in Austria or the Office for the Quality of Medicines in the Czech Republic or some other institution of the kind which would supervise the process and then buy the cannabis from the licensed growers and distribute it to pharmacies where patients can take their prescriptions from their doctors, based on a proper diagnosis and obtain it for treatment. That’s most probably the only way how to make it a part of the medical system and how to protect people.”
And it would enable research here in the Czech Republic?
“Yes, that’s a by-product. Then we can somehow follow-up what was done here in the 50s and 70s.”
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