Cannabis Reformers in the Serbian Parliament

2016. május 2.

Medical cannabis activists formed an alliance with a political party, in order to contest the parliamentary elections in Serbia. Read Irena Molnar's report from Belgrade, and watch the video!

Rather more than a year ago, a group of activists approached the Serbian Minister of Health, seeking the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes, and were surprised to receive a positive response - the Minister of Health publicly supported the initiative. At the time, all the media outlets - newspapers, TV and radio stations - were talking about the regulation of medicinal cannabis. To the surprise of many experts, there was no real opposition to the idea - a potential indicator of progress.  
Last summer, the first legalisation march was organised in Belgrade by IRKA Association (Initiative for changing cannabis law); and patients from all over Serbia, living with painful conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, marched and campaigned passionately on the issue of legalising medicinal cannabis in Serbia.  

Please watch the movie produced by our Serbian partner, Re Generation, on medical cannabis!
Unfortunately, despite overwhelming public support, professional recommendations, and tireless patient advocacy, the necessary legislative changes didn’t meet their expectations. The biggest fear of those in need, and of all those advocating for legislative changes, was that any new law would only apply in relation to medicines based on synthetic cannabinoids. The Commission set up by the Ministry of Health to oversee the regulation of medical cannabis use decided that, at least for now, use of just the three medicines that contain synthetic and other kinds of tetrahydrocannabinols would be regulated. Use of Dronabinol (Marinol) would be legalised for treatment of significant weight loss in HIV/AIDS patients, as well as for the treatment of side-effects of chemotherapy in cancer patients, but only when other medicines are not effective. The use of Nabilone, a synthetic substance similar to THC, would also be regulated for treatment of nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients who do not respond to the usual drugs from the group of antiemetics. The third drug is Sativex spray, which contains natural THC, for alleviating motor disorder symptoms (spasticity) in patients in whom this problem is not adequately controlled by conventional therapy.
After the announcement of these legislative changes, many organisations, patients, and those who are directly affected, including people involved in advocating for legalisation of cannabis as a plant and cannabis oil, felt disappointed and sidelined. Many of them felt that the decision-making process had been influenced by pharmaceutical companies and even financially motivated by other parties.   Igor, a member of the IRKA organisation and an MS patient, says that this legislative change won’t make any difference to his treatment, simply because he refuses to use a very expensive synthetic product instead of an organic and complete natural remedy, even though his chosen treatment, which has proven to be most effective for his condition – cannabis oil –   will remain illegal.  
The Hemp Humanitarian Association (HUK) tried to cooperate with the Serbian government during the policy assessment process, while it seemed that the use of medicinal cannabis oil would be legalised. After a sudden shift in policy, and the decision to only introduce pharmaceutical products, the organisation withdrew their support, stating that implementing such a law would directly jeopardise patients.
After the decision had been made, the matter seemed to have been shelved, until a couple of weeks ago. At a press conference regarding forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Serbian Green Party officially announced an alliance with IRKA. For the first time in Serbia's history, there was a united election campaign, embracing farmers from the Vojvodina region, people living with chronic illnesses, and representatives of minorities (Slovaks), with the slogan “Seeking to make Serbia a healthy, happy and wealthy state for all its citizens”. The campaign stated that this was a historic moment in the parliamentary life of Serbia, because, “Ordinary citizens have an opportunity to participate in national politics and the parliamentary decision-making process, and fight for legislative changes which could benefit everyone“.

The Green Party is a new party, formed after the elections in 2014. They participated independently in elections, as an official party of the Slovak national minority. They formed a coalition with IRKA, and agreed to include them in their election list. Thus, they could have representatives in the parliament, although the number of seats would depend on the votes received on election day. In order to secure a parliamentary seat for the members of IRKA, they had to receive at least 100,000 votes. They were counting on receiving support from all the Serbian cannabis-users (around 400,000 of them). What they were afraid of was that they didn’t have enough support from the media, especially because they are a party representing an ethnic minority and standing for legalisation of medicinal cannabis. What seemed to suit them was the timing of the elections, coming right after 20th of April, which was marked by two events, one of them organised by the IRKA Association.     
Last week, ahead of the elections, another political party, a group formed around the former Finance Minister, Saša Radulović, and his allies, was also a declared candidate. They shared their view of medical cannabis legalisation with Re Generation. The official position of the “Dosta je bilo” (“That's enough”) movement on the legalisation of medicinal cannabis, generally speaking, is that, “The end justifies the means”. Their priority is to simplify the process by which people who choose to be treated with medical cannabis can obtain it. However, they also realise that in order to produce cannabis-based medicines which would be available on prescription, Serbia needed a law covering control of organic cannabis production, along with quality control of cannabis oil, including, but not limited to, strict control of its abuse. They realised that many people were already using cannabis oil illegally as a medicine, with the illegality making it difficult and expensive to obtain. In the recent interview with Re Generation, “Dosta je bilo” stated that they would advocate for a law legalising medicinal cannabis, so that the government can gain some insight into the lives of people who are currently using it illegally. Their clear opinion was that the state was duty-bound to create a framework within which citizens can fulfil their potential, with a science-based decision-making process – citing the examples of jurisdictions such as Colorado, Canada etc. which have already made legislative changes. In the Re Generation interview, Stanko Maletić, a member of the movement, also stated that they would “advocate for an evolutionary approach”, saying, “We think we need to demolish the taboos regarding cannabis, and open a public dialogue, leading to legislative change. The law should reflect the opinion of society, and our goal is to make society aware of the medical benefits of cannabis as a plant.”  
The “Dosta je bilo” movement won 16 parliamentary seats, plus one Green Party seat, making 17 (although Parliament has not yet met). So, was it really necessary for IRKA and other organisations advocating for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis to form alliances just before the elections, in order to bring about such changes? Did the political parties promise their support just for the sake of short-term votes, as we have seen so many times before? Time will tell. Let us hope that in the end, legislation is passed, allowing people in need to be treated in the way they choose.  
Irena Molnar, Re Generation