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“This is not compassionate”: Ireland’s medical cannabis scheme ‘excludes thousands of patients’

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Campaigners have said the scheme is not inclusive enough

Ireland’s government has finally announced funding for its Medical Cannabis Access Programme – but the scheme remains ‘extremely restrictive’, say campaigners.

Almost two years since the legislation was introduced in June 2019,  Ireland’s Health Minister Stephen Donnelly announced funding for the Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme on Thursday 21 January.

The programme is expected to commence later this year, with Donnelly claiming it will allow for “compassionate access” to cannabis medicines.

But campaigners have been quick to criticise the scheme, which only offers access to four low dose cannabis-based medicines to people living with one of three qualifying conditions.

These include intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, severe treatment-resistant epilepsy and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis (MS). 

But despite all of the patients who are currently being prescribed cannabis under a ministerial license, using Bedrocan products from the Transvaal pharmacy in the Hague, none of these have been approved for the programme.

This suggests children – including 11-year-old Ava Barry – who have had their quality of life significantly improved by Bedrocan oils, will have to switch products in order to have their prescriptions reimbursed.

Ava Barry is prescribed Bedrocan oils for severe epilepsy

As has been highlighted extensively by campaigners in the UK in recent weeks, in regard to the issues importing Bedrocan due to Brexit, changing treatments for epilepsy can lead to a worsening of seizures and could be life-threatening. 

Alicia Maher is a patient and advocate who moved to Spain in 2019 in order to have better access to cannabis medicines, which she uses to manage chronic pain.

While she welcomed the news that the programme would finally be funded, she will still not be able to return to her hometown of Limerick.

“Many people have asked me whether this will impact me and whether I will be able to come home, but sadly the answer is no,” she said.

“Chronic pain is not one of the qualifying conditions, despite the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) acknowledging in their 2017 report that it is the most researched indication for cannabinoids, with the majority of reports concluding that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain.”

According to Alicia, recent reports suggest that approximately 25 percent of the population suffer from chronic pain, with the condition affecting over 1.5 million people.

She was granted a ministerial licence to be legally prescribed medical cannabis last year, but would have to fund the costs of the prescription herself.

She continued: “I, along with many others that currently hold the ministerial licence and fall outside the three qualifying conditions, will not be allowed onto the access programme, even though our doctors are currently prescribing cannabis. 

“We won’t have access to any of the cannabis products that have been approved and we won’t have our costs reimbursed. 

Alicia added: “It is fiscally irresponsible as the cost of my cannabis prescription is less than my prescription was for 30 opioids per day, yet they were completely covered on my medical card.”

Campaign group, Cork Cannabis Activist Network said excluding patients from accessing these medicines is in no way “compassionate” or “acceptable”.

“The headlines are designed to paint a rosy picture favouring those in government, but this is not the truth, and most certainly for not the countless Irish citizens who consume cannabis daily for various medical reasons,” Nicole Lonergan spokesperson for the group, told Cannabis Health.

“Cannabis is complex and so are patients and their individual physiological needs. Yet the Irish government thinks it’s acceptable to offer limited access to four cannabis-based medicines and restrict access to three qualifying conditions.”

Nicole is among those who want to see cannabis legalised in Ireland, with thousands of patients still forced to access medication illegally.

The group has called for an education programme to improve understanding of the medicinal benefits of cannabis among healthcare professionals.

“Week after week, I receive hundreds of messages from people of all ages and backgrounds crying out for cannabis to be legalised,” she said.

“A comprehensive cannabis education programme needs to be urgently rolled out to GP’s and consultants in Ireland and the law needs to be changed so that no one is forced to continue relying on the illegal market for their medicine.”

Nicole added: “It is not ‘compassionate’ to exclude certain patients from accessing cannabis medicines, or to offer an extremely limited selection of products that do not suit the majority of patients’ needs. It is not ‘compassionate’ to condemn patients to rely on an illegal market or force patients to leave their homes and families to access cannabis legally.

“We deserve answers as to why the Irish government continues to uphold a law that ruins lives and prevents access to legitimate, effective medicine in all its forms.”

Announcing the provision of funding and delivery of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme, Minister Donnelly said:  “The purpose of this Programme is to facilitate compassionate access to cannabis for medical reasons, where conventional treatment has failed. It follows the clear pathway laid out by the Health Products Regulatory Authority in their expert report ‘Cannabis for Medical Use – A Scientific Review’. 

“Ultimately it will be the decision of the medical consultant, in consultation with their patient, to prescribe a particular treatment, including a cannabis-based treatment, for a patient under their care. 

“It is important to state that there are no plans to legalise cannabis in this country.”

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