Puritanical zeal, misinformation and fear are at the root of the medical and political establishment’s reluctance to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes, three doctors have said.
The absence of legislation has caused unnecessary suffering among thousands of patients with a range of conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and chronic pain, the medics said.
The doctors were speaking at a press conference organised by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, who has authored a Bill aimed at legalising medicinal cannabis. The Private Members’ Bill remains on the Dáil agenda, despite the Oireachtas Committee on Health saying it is legally flawed.
Prof Mike Barnes, a neurologist and rehabilitation physician in the UK, highlighted dozens of peer-reviewed research papers that have proved the efficacy of medical cannabis. He said such drugs have alleviated pain "in all its manifestations", treated muscle spasms, anxiety and nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy.
He also said there was evidence that medicinal cannabis was successful in helping people with epilepsy and sleep disorders, and described the side effects associated with using the drug in a medicinal setting as minimal.
“Thousands of people with chronic conditions can benefit from this drug that has been around for centuries,” Prof Barnes said.
Dr Cathal Ó Súilleabháin, who has more than 20 years’ experience in treating addiction as a GP, highlighted the distinction between the use of the drug for medical and recreational purposes.
“This is a political issue, and the political parties are afraid that they will be accused of being the ones who let pot loose on the streets,” he said. “But what we are talking about is medicinal use, not recreational use, and the two things cannot be conflated.”
He added: “The idea that someone is going to go into a chemist and pay the extortionate rates they apply is just ridiculous. If someone wants to buy cannabis for recreational use, then they can go on to almost any street and get it very easily.”
Dr Garret McGovern, medical director of Priority Medical Clinic, suggested that cannabis had been stigmatised in the mainstream "more than heroin when it comes to its medicinal use" and he said many opiate-based drugs are legitimately available.
“This stems from a puritanical inability to separate medicinal cannabis from recreational cannabis,” he said. “If we had never heard of recreational cannabis then we would have had these drugs years ago.”
Mr Kenny said he wanted to work with the health committee in order to ensure that legislation was agreed and passed. “Science is on our side, public opinion is on our side and history is on our side,” he said.