Medicinal cannabis programme may be in place by autumn

Oireachtas committee hears update on scheme as protester completes 260km walk

A programme to allow patients with specific conditions access to medicinal cannabis could be in place by autumn, the Oireachtas health committee has been told.

The committee heard on Tuesday that the Department of Health was looking at setting up the access programme using statutory instruments rather than primary legislation. The department estimated that this would take six months.

Department of Health principal officer Eugene Lennon told the committee the current situation in relation to access to medicinal cannabis was "not ideal".

He said setting up the proposed programme through legislation would take 18 months.

As the hearing took place, Cork mother Vera Twomey completed her walk to Dublin in support of access to cannabis-based medicine for her seven-year-old daughter Ava, who has a severe form of epilepsy.

Ms Twomey, who finished the 260km journey in a wheelchair after suffering a knee injury, was met by several hundred supporters outside the Dáil.

The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) has recommended access to medicinal cannabis under a monitored five-year programme for sufferers of severe epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

Officials from the HPRA also addressed the committee on Tuesday.

HPRA chief executive Lorraine Nolan said the authority could not recommend more widespread access to medicinal cannabis, in the absence of scientific data demonstrating its effectiveness and safety.

However, she said access could be facilitated under controlled circumstances where patient safety and follow-ups could be ensured.

“Any proposal to circumvent the medicines regulatory system, established by law, would require careful consideration, so as to avoid unintended consequences, and lower standards of patient protection.”

Ms Nolan also noted that nine other European countries have access programmes similar to that proposed for the State.

Three of the nine - the Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic - have programmes with a wider scope, while 16 other European countries do not allow access to medicinal cannabis, she said.

Special licence

Pending the introduction of an access programme, patients who wish to use medicinal cannabis may apply to the Minister for Health for a special licence to access the drug.

Two such applications have been received, one of which was approved, Mr Lennon told the committee.

The other application, from Ms Twomey’s family, was rejected.

Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TD and committee member Richard Boyd Barrett said the authority's proposals were in line with the Government's desire to "kill" his party's Bill on medicinal cannabis, which was currently before the Oireachtas.

He asked why the Government had not followed the example of those countries with a wider access scheme.

He said more than 800,000 people suffering with chronic pain had been “left out in the cold” by the failure to include this condition in the proposed scheme.

Ms Nolan responded: “We’re not closing the door on pain. We are simply saying the evidence is not strong enough at present.”

Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell said she would be concerned if the State started telling doctors what to do.

She said that if anyone suffered an overdose of CBD (cannabinoid), “the blood could be on our hands.

“Let’s not rip up the rulebook, with the possibility of terrible unintended side-effects that were never anticipated. That’s why we have robust trials,” she said. “Everyone thought thalidomide was great at first.”