High time for cannabis cures
Medicinal cannabis has become a fast-growing multi-billion dollar global industry. But Irish people with MS and other conditions are still in a legal limbo, left to buy the drug on the street.
Six months after Marie Fleming passed away after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, her partner Tom Curran revealed she had been smoking cannabis to help ease her pain.
After Fleming died in December 2013, shortly after losing a landmark case against the State to lift the ban on assisted suicide, Curran said he had grown cannabis for his partner.
"Rather than buying it on the street, I bought seeds on the internet and I grew it for Marie, and the results were incredible," Curran said. "You could see within two minutes of her taking it, her limbs stopped shaking. You could see the anxiousness in her was gone because the pain was dissipating."
Curran was well aware that he was risking a spell in prison if he was caught. While the Government signed a law in July to pave the way for a cannabis-based medicine to become legal in Ireland, there are still no such approved drugs on the market.
As a result, people seeking relief from medical conditions such as MS, glaucoma and cancer have no option but to seek out cannabis in the same way as recreational users - through the black market. If caught, they face a fine of up to €2,750 and 12 months in prison for a third offence.
On paper, the Government's new regulations would permit the prescribing of cannabis-based medicines to alleviate muscle spasms and prevent inflammation in people with MS. The chronic disease affects some 8,000 people in Ireland.
Sativex, an oral spray that contains extracts from the leaf and flower of the cannabis plant, is credited with easing MS symptoms and was cleared for use last year. But the drug, which would cost patients up to €500 a month, still cannot be bought or sold in Ireland because the Department of Health and the drug's Irish distributor have not yet agreed on a price. The National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics has estimated that the cost to the State would be between €4,500 and €5,000 for every MS patient.
Ava Battles, chief executive of MS Ireland, is frustrated with the delay in introducing the drug. "MS Ireland is disappointed that Sativex remains inaccessible to those with MS who need it. Ongoing research into the benefits of medicinal cannabis and cannabis-based medication extract for the symptoms of MS has shown the efficacy of such treatments to alleviate spasticity, sleep disorders, pain and other symptoms associated with MS."
It became illegal in the early 20th century in most of the world to cultivate, sell or possess cannabis. But the tide is changing. Cannabis has become a multi-billion euro legitimate industry in parts of the US as state after state decriminalises its production and sale, mostly for medicinal purposes. In Europe, cannabinoid-based treatments are available on health systems in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK.
Cannabis has been used as a medicine for centuries, with the ancient Egyptians and Chinese among the earliest users. Surviving texts from ancient India show that doctors used it to treat everything from insomnia to labour pains. Indeed, it was while he was in India that Limerick-born doctor William Brooke O'Shaughnessy came to pioneer the use of cannabis in western medicine, establishing his reputation by successfully relieving the pain of rheumatism and stilling the convulsions of an infant with Indian hemp.
Now another Irish doctor is feting the medical properties of cannabis and has high hopes for Ireland as a global hub for research and development of the drug. Dr James Linden, managing director of start-up GreenLight Health, has started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise €100,000. He plans to use the funds to lobby the Government for a change in the law to allow other cannabis-based medicines to be made and sold in Ireland and to finance a clinical trial for a cannabis oil to treat MS.
The Dublin-based company, which comprises pharmacists, scientists, and doctors and legal experts, argues that the existing law has turned MS patients into criminals for using cannabis to relieve their symptoms. Linden wants a licence to grow cannabis for research purposes and plans to investigate the use of cannabis extracts to treat cancer and childhood epilepsy.
"There is only one licence in Ireland currently and that's for Sativex," Linden said. "We still need a change in the law to produce pharmaceutical-grade cannabis-based treatments. There are massive hoops to jump through to physically bring cannabis into a laboratory.
"The horse has bolted on cannabis medicine around the world and Ireland is only catching up now."
Opinion polls suggest public opinion in Ireland is swaying in favour of decriminalising the drug altogether. Some 38pc of Irish adults support the abolition of laws banning cannabis, a Red C poll found last year, up from just 24pc in 1998. Even Leo Varadkar, the Health Minister, has suggested his stance is softening, saying last month: "A number of senators have called for a more health-focused, addiction-focused approach rather than a criminal justice one to deal with the drugs crisis. My own instincts are in that direction too."
While the Government shot down a bill to legalise cannabis in 2013, the recent success of American states in taking the drug out of the hands of criminal gangs and into retail stores has led to a revival of campaigns here to overturn laws banning cannabis.
Daniel Kirby, a PhD student at Dublin City University, organised a conference in the capital last week to discuss current policies on drugs. Kirby is chairman of the DCU branch of Students For Sensible Drug Policy Ireland, an international organisation aimed at ending zero-tolerance policies on drugs.
"One of the biggest problems I have with the illegality of cannabis is that it funds criminal gangs," says Kirby. "That money could go into government coffers."
Amid a dearth of legal medicinal cannabis, Irish people in search of relief from medical conditions are at the mercy of dealers in a market where hash, once the main form of cannabis available in Ireland, has been overtaken by skunk. This potent form of cannabis was linked to 24pc of new psychosis cases analysed by King's College London.
Jon Snow, the English TV journalist, took skunk in a live experiment broadcast by Channel 4. Snow compared going into an MRI scanner on skunk as scarier than reporting from war zones. "I had no idea it could be so powerful and terrifyingly mind altering," he said.
America’s Green Rush
Almost half of America’s 50 states have legalised medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington went even further, by overturning a ban in 2012 on the growth, sale and possession of the drug for recreational purposes. Consumers can grow their own or buy it from dispensaries or vending machines.
The relaxation of the laws — a sign that America’s long-running war on drugs has run out of steam — has spawned a “green rush” of businesses seeking to cash in on the phenomenon. Colorado made $76m (€70m) in 2014 from taxes on medical sales and fees levied on the cannabis industry, such as makers of marijuana-infused chocolate bars.
According to the ArcView Group, a San Francisco-based financial network specialising in cannabis investment, the industry— including medical sales — was worth $2.6bn last year.
Even Willie Nelson, a lifetime supporter of cannabis, is getting in on the act; last month, 81-year-old singer-songwriter announced plans to develop his own strains of pot, called Willie’s Reserve, and to sell the product in a chain of dispensaries.