Medicinal cannabis amendments expected to come into force in February

Health minister Chris Fearne said a framework for local manufacture would start being discussed in the new year

Both the government and the opposition agreed there should be better access to medicinal cannabis by those who need it
Both the government and the opposition agreed there should be better access to medicinal cannabis by those who need it

Health Minister Chris Fearne said he expected legal amendments facilitating access to medicinal cannabis to come into force by February.

Fearne was speaking in parliament, as the House started to debate proposed amendments to the Drug Dependence (Treatment not imprisonment), which will allow cannabis products to be prescribed by family doctors, and which will allow doctors to prescribe cannabis preparations that did not qualify as medicinal products.

Both the Government and the Opposition have come out in favour of the amendment, with Fearne expressing his satisfaction at the fact that the two sides were not opposing each other simply for the sake of it.

The proposed amendments, he said, were being put forward to improve the law, which was implemented in 2015, since this had included a number of provisos that had resulted in a situation where medicinal cannabis was not accessible to any patients.

“It so happened that with the provisos introduced in 2015, despite there being one or two requests, in actual fact, no patient had benefitted from the law,” said Fearne.

“We would like to broaden the law and reduce bureaucracy to make it easier for those patients whose doctor thinks they can benefit from cannabis can do so.”

Fearne said that the changes were also being proposed in light of the fact that many patients and doctors had come forward and requested that the law be amended.  

In addition to allowing general practitioners to prescribe cannabis, Fearne added that there would not be any restrictions on how the medicine is prescribed.

Good Manufacturing Practice requirement

Fearne said that as with all other medicines, doctors needed a way of knowing how much of the active ingredient was present in the preparation, as well as a guarantee that it did not contain any impurities.

The new regulations, the he said, would therefore allow doctors to prescribe cannabis products that were not strictly speaking medicinal products that were manufacture under Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) – a strict standard used in the pharmaceutical industry.

“In other words, they held to the same standards as medicines and when doctors are prescribing them, they can know what they are prescribing.”

Ultimately the government wanted to ensure people’s safety.

Free market will bring price down

Turning to issues related to the pricing of medicinal cannabis products, Fearne said that the understood that it was beyond what some people could realistically afford.

“I am informed that when we open up the market, there are agents willing to enter the market, and import these products at affordable prices,” stressed Fearne, adding that once there was more than one importer, the price would inevitably come down.

Moreover, the minister said that in the new year, government would also be looking at ways in which “serious individuals” could be licensed to manufacture cannabis products in Malta. This, he said would push prices even further down.

Finally, he reiterated that the proposed amendments would not allow for the prescription of cannabis products intended for smoking.

Cannabis not a wonder drug

Stephen Spiteri, the Opposition’s spokesman for health, said that cannabis should be considered a ”wonder drug”, despite the fact that it had several medicinal uses, including cancer, chronic illnesses, arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, as well as others.

“Science has shown us that this plant has several properties that are beneficial,” he said, adding that there were over 50 different types of active substances in cannabis that could benefit patients.

“We must understand that a lot of what is being discovered is still at a trial stage, and one which is too early for it to be considered a cure,” said Spiteri.

Like Fearne, he too stressed the need for patients to have access to quality products, and for measure to be taken to prevent the development of a black market.

Turning to those who were still “concerned”, Spiteri emphasised that it was not uncommon for “drugs” to be used of “medicines”.

Morphine, he said, was one example. “It comes from the heroin family, which we all know is a dangerous drug, but in a controlled form, when used for medical purposes, it can have beneficial properties.”

Finally, Spiteri said he was against the introduction of restrictions on which patients could use medicinal cannabis, and against a situation were cannabis products were too expensive for everyone to afford.  

Medicinal cannabis should be free

Opposition MP Claudio Grech, also speaking in parliament suggested that once the government had accepted that cannabis had important medicinal purposes, especially when it came to certain illnesses, it should also consider providing it to patients without any charge.

“Legislating in favour of something doesn’t mean that those who can’t afford it will have access to it,” he said, adding that government should also consider importing and distributing accepted preparations itself.