Patients still waiting to see benefits of 2013 law on medical marihuana

When the law on medical marihuana came into force in February of last year it seemed that the way was now open for patients suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases to use the drug under medical supervision without having to acquire it secretly in violation of the law. However, despite the good intentions of MPs who pushed through the legislation, little has changed in the past year and cannabis remains unavailable legally.

Illustrative photo: CTKIllustrative photo: CTK The legislation approved at the beginning of last year allows patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other serious disorders to obtain a small amount of medical marihuana on an electronic prescription in whatever form best suits their purpose. This should be decided by their physician and only some specialists have the right to issue such prescriptions. The only fly in the ointment of this pioneering endeavour was the fact that initially the marihuana would have to be imported, thereby increasing its cost, and would not be covered by health insurance.

In the end even those patients willing to fork out an estimated 300 crowns per gram of marihuana were unable to do so. Although three companies were given licenses to import medical cannabis in the course of last year none of them moved to do so. And since it is unavailable doctors are not prescribing it. Consequently, patients who rely on a small daily amount of cannabis to bring them relief are still having to break the law to obtain it – either by growing it themselves or buying it –with no guarantee of quality – on the black market.

Photo: Karel RožánekPhoto: Karel Rožánek The cited reasons why the law has not been put into practice are many: the health ministry says that the process of introducing medical marihuana into the system is complicated and it will take a while to get the wheels in motion. Patients who use marihuana confirm that doctors know little about its effects and are weary of prescribing it. Moreover only a fraction of doctors use electronic prescriptions which will only become compulsory in 2015 and the health ministry has no leverage to make those specialists who are entitled to prescribe marihuana to introduce electronic prescriptions before that time. Another argument is that it is costly and few patients can afford it on a regular basis. Consequently the firms licensed to import it have not placed any orders to date.

There is a chance that this vicious circle could be broken once the authorities start issuing licences to Czech companies to grow cannabis plants for medical purposes–which the law will enable them to do as of April. Among those who plan to apply for a license is the pharmaceutical faculty of Charles University in Hradec Kralove. Its dean Tomáš Šimůnek explains:

Tomáš Šimůnek, photo: archive of Charles UniversityTomáš Šimůnek, photo: archive of Charles University “Our faculty does not see this as a business venture, we have a medical orientation and marihuana as a pharmaceutical product is in our area of interest. I assume that we will be growing a limited amount –in the tens of kilograms annually – depending on demand. And we hope to make it more affordable to patients. If imported marihuana were to cost 300 crowns per gram we could produce it for half that or less. We naturally want to cover our expenses and any small profit we make would be used for students and research but we certainly do not see this as a profit-making enterprise.”

The first home-grown marihuana could be available in the late summer or early autumn of this year. But it will require much more for patients to see the benefits of this law in practice –predominantly active involvement of doctors and pharmacies.