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'HPRA guidance is biased. It didn't use expert advisors with practical experience of cannabis'

The government position of claiming concern for safety with unnecessary delays requires a public protest, write Gino Kenny TD and Dr Peadar O’Grady.

IN JULY 2016, Bríd Smith TD and Gino Kenny TD moved the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill 2016.

It is appropriate that on the day of the Bill going into “detailed scrutiny” in the Oireachtas Health Committee that we set out the reasons why the Bill needs public support in order to pass the remaining two stages of the seemingly interminable Dáil process.

In short the People Before Profit Cannabis Bill will save lives and ease the suffering of tens of thousands.

An effective treatment for chronic pain

The Barnes report to the UK parliament last year confirmed what many people in Ireland already know, that cannabis is an effective treatment for those suffering chronic pain and illnesses like MS, intractable epilepsy and the symptoms of cancer or chemotherapy.

The Bill is the only way the majority of people who could benefit from cannabis can have legally protected access to quality controlled cannabis products.

The Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill provides for the regulation of cannabis for medicinal use and to do this proposes to establish a Cannabis Regulation Authority to regulate distribution by issuing licences under the Act.

It also provides for a Cannabis Research Institute to improve the level of public knowledge and to develop research on the medicinal use of cannabis.

A legally protected, secure supply

Under the Act patients will be able to access from a pharmacy, with a doctor’s recommendation, a legally protected, secure supply of a quality-controlled cannabis-based product, that is effective, and safer than many authorised products, especially for pain relief.

The current government policy in the “Programme for a Partnership Government” states that: “We will support a health-led approach rather than a criminal justice approach to drug use.”

However, the government-sponsored alternative to the Bill the “Compassionate Access Programme” is neither compassionate nor will it provide access for the vast majority of people who could benefit from cannabis-based treatments as it excludes people suffering chronic pain without a credible explanation.

The existing government programme has restricted access from all but a handful of patients. This is sadly well illustrated in the case of Vera Twomey and her daughter, Ava, who has Dravet’s syndrome, and suffered up to 300 seizures a day before Vera started using a cannabis extraction as a medicine for Ava.

Health Minister Simon Harris has refused to authorise access for Ava and continues to criminalise other child and adult patients using cannabis-based treatments.

shutterstock_313444226 (1) Shutterstock / Africa Studio Shutterstock / Africa Studio / Africa Studio

HPRA guidance is unreliable and biased

The government claim they are supported by the Health Products Regulatory Authority report on the subject.

Unfortunately for them the HPRA guidance is unreliable and biased because it did not use any expert advisors with practical experience of cannabis for medicinal use and because the reasons given by the HPRA for restricting access are not applied consistently to other drugs, and do not take into account the serious risk of death and dependency caused by the existing authorised drugs such as opioids and benzodiazepines.

Existing prescription drugs are a growing concern as a cause of death and dependency, but the government and the HPRA are deliberately ignoring this concern.

No overall increase in recreational use has been associated with the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use in the US and youth cannabis use for recreational purposes is actually falling there.

The government has rejected, without explanation, the progress in other EU countries and the United States where the benefits of medicinal cannabis are being seen. These benefits include not only pain relief and a reduction in seizures, but a reduction in the use of more toxic drugs, and a reduction in deaths from overdoses which happen frequently with opioid painkillers and benzos but never with cannabis.

Cannabis will improve health of overall population

Increased numbers of patients using cannabis-based products instead of more toxic alternative authorised medicines will result in a net improvement in the health of the population as a whole.

The Minister has left potentially hundreds of thousands of people suffering from chronic pain out in the cold by excluding them from accessing cannabis for medicinal use.

In the US the introduction of medicinal cannabis has seen drug overdoses and deaths reduce and drug sales of more dangerous drugs fall. Some of these drug companies whose sales are affected are lobbying against medicinal cannabis and making financial contributions to political groups opposing legislation.

According to a report in the Guardian newspaper last October the makers of well-known opioid painkillers Vicodin and Oxycontin are prominent financial supporters of anti-cannabis lobbies.

We can trust doctors to advise their patients

Doctors and pharmacists should be trusted to advise their patients, as for other more toxic medicines, of the risks and benefits and to recommend caution with populations at risk such as with children. There is nothing in the Bill which prejudges professional judgement or which attempts to influence how doctors or pharmacists carry out their professional duties.

What has to happen now is for the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Bill to go to Committee stage in the Dáil without delay. The government position of claiming concern for safety while ignoring the dangers of existing treatments, excluding the majority of patients and obstructing the Bill with unnecessary delays requires a strong public protest.

It is time to put “People Before Profit” and to back the Cannabis Bill. As Vera Twomey said last week: “Nothing else will do”.

Gino Kenny is the proposer of the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill 2016 and People Before Profit TD for Dublin Mid-West. Dr Peadar O’Grady is the People Before Profit Health advisor and is a child psychiatrist.

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Gino Kenny TD and Dr Peadar O'Grady
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