Polish Government Supports Legal Access to Medical Cannabis

March 24, 2016

A surprise decision from the otherwise super-conservative Polish government: it improves access to cannabis for medical purposes. 


The last general election in Poland turned out to be a major success for the right-wing parties, while on the left, no party got enough votes to get into the parliament. The Law and Justice (LaJ) party got a safe majority of seats, and its candidate also became the country's President. As a result, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, LaJ’s leader, has full power to shape Polish politics for the next four years. It seems that times will become rough in terms of drug policy reform and harm reduction. This doesn’t, however, apply to medical cannabis, and we are currently seeing the first favorable political decisions in this area. 
 
For the last couple of weeks, it has become possible to receive a full refund on pharmaceuticals containing medical marijuana (obtained legally, with permission from the Ministry of Health, under so called “destined import”). This means that patients who have been paying a couple of thousand zlotys (zloty is the currency in Poland, 1 USD is appr. 4 zloty - the editor) for the full therapy will now pay significantly less.
 
"This is a suprising, yet very good decision of the current government. Because of it, many patients will be able to continue therapy using medications containing medical cannabis, without incurring massive costs," comments the neurologist, Marek Bachanski, a doctor who, in October 2015, lost his job at Children’s Memorial Health Institute, for using medical marijuana to treat children with epilepsy.
 
Politicians such as the Deputy Minister of Justice, Patryk Jaki, (who last year drafted a bill to legalise the medical use of cannabis), also have positive opinions about the Ministry’s decision. As he says, it confirms and legitimises the lawful use of these products, which (while being legal in the past) were somehow stigmatised by medical professionals and the media.
 
"All the patients, including sick children, will benefit from the Ministry’s decision," argues Jaki, who has been supporting cannabis treatment for years. Since 2012, three such medications are approved in Poland: Bediol, Bedrocan and Sativex (Bediol and Bedrocan are different strength medical marijuana produced by Bedrocan, a Dutch company, while Sativex is an oral spray produced by GW Pharma - the editor). The first two are used to treat drug-resistant epilepsy among children, while the last one is used in the treatment of painful muscle stiffness associated with multiple sclerosis. Bediol and Bedrocan are imported from the Netherlands on a patient-by-patient basis, while the sale of Sativex has been permissible via pharmacy prescription.
 
The problem is, that the price of one packet of medical marijuana exceeds 2500 zlotys - equivalent to over half the average salary in Poland. There are only few dozen patients using “destined import” in the country, so there is not enough will and courage among doctors to prescribe pharmaceuticals incorporating medical cannabis. Despite that, on 17th April 2015, the Constitutional Court recommended to Parliament that medical marijuana should be regulated. It pointed out that scientific evidence confirms that its medical value, especially for treating the side-effects of chemotherapy.

 
Despite the right to health guaranteed by the Constitution, patients are often forced to obtain the medicine illegally, and marijuana obtained on the black market is usually of questionable quality. The Polish Act on Counteracting Drugs, moreover, stipulates that possession of any quantity of illegal drugs (even for medical purposes) is a criminal offence, liable to up to three years' imprisonment.
 
This is not the only news when it comes to medical marijuana. At the beginning of this month, the MP Piotr Liroy-Marzec, from the right-wing Kukiz’15 party, submitted a proposal to amend the drug-abuse prevention act, to include the creation of a register of doctors using medical cannabis in therapy, as well as a provision allowing the National Pharmaceutical Inspectorate to grant permission for the cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes.
 
This is what I’ve been saying for all these years, especially during my campaign. I promised the sick people I met, that I would submit this proposal. – says the MP. His proposal was drafted in cooperation with the Medical Marijuana Coalition, which includes patients, doctors, journalists, activists, and civil society representatives. The draft provides for the Ministry of Health to create a national registry, with a list of doctors using medical cannabis in treatment, and records of turnover. All use will be monitored at a national level. The proposal doesn’t introduce any changes to the criminal law – recreational cannabis will remain illegal.
Parliament is still working on the bill. It is an open secret that Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the current mastermind of Polish politics, is supporting it. Over the next couple of weeks, we may see some unexpected developments: For years, we have been waiting for action from left-wing politicians in this area, and now, a few months after the far-right came to power, we may see a true revolution in the issue of medical cannabis use in Poland. This shows how unpredictable politics can be, but also reveals the weaknesses of the Polish left-wing.
 
Agnieszka Sieniawska, chairwoman of Polish Drug Policy Network, www.politykanarkotykowa.com,