IN June last year the Irish Government signed-off on its five-year medicinal cannabis programme – but no patients have yet been enrolled.
However, there is hope the new Government – a coalition of the Greens, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – will usher in a new era for Ireland’s Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP).
The new Taoiseach Micheál Martin, of Fianna Fáil, spoke earlier this year that of his frustration at the lack of progress with medicinal cannabis, and new Health Minister Stephen Donnelly acknowledges its medical benefits.
Irish TD for the Dublin Mid-West Gino Kenny is a firm advocate and hopes the new Government will embrace its potential.
Mr Kenny told BusinessCann: “They’ve got to get MCAP functioning properly. We’ve got this far and cannot abandon it. It hasn’t even treated any patients yet.
“Why is this the case? Well we just don’t know. MCAP has been underpinned by legislation and three manufacturers have had their products sanctioned for use.
“What’s the delay? Well as far as I understand no consultants have come forward to be part of the programme register and, on top of that, the whole programme is too strict.”
Under the scheme consultants can prescribe to patients for spasticity, associated with multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-related intractable nausea and treatment-resistant epilepsy.
‘Compassionate access to cannabis’
When launched, Ireland’s Minister for Health, Simon Harris, said MCAP would allow ‘compassionate access to cannabis for medical reasons’ in cases where conventional treatment has failed.
However Mr Kenny, of the Irish Solidarity–People Before Profit party, believes the band of treatments is too restrictive and it needs expanded to include others, such as chronic and neurological pain.
Ireland was ahead of the game in 2017 when announcing its intention to launch MCAP – and while it set to work to shaping its legislation it offered patients access to cannabis through a Ministerial Licence (ML) programme.
This sees a consultant apply for licence from Ministry of Health on behalf of patient. Once granted a patient must travel abroad to get their three-month supply of specified medicine and bring back into the country.
Patients travelled to Holland and Spain
Prior to Covid-19 patients travelled mainly Holland and Spain but these are now delivered by courier to Ireland. Some 40 patients have been able to use this route to medicine, says Mr Kenny.
He continued: “Personally I think the Department of Health are happy to stick with the Ministerial Licence.
“Whilst it’s very cumbersome and bureaucratic, and whilst there’s no guarantee, the majority of patients are being reimbursed.
“But the five-year MCAP programme was designed as a trial which would allow us to look at the evidence of how cannabis has changed patients’ lives and that isn’t happening.
“What we should do is merge the Ministerial Licence into MCAP and guarantee reimbursement via the long-term illness medical card, with patients being able to collect their prescription from the local pharmacy. Then we could establish a repository of information and evidence on each individual.”
A spokesperson for the Irish Health Service confirmed no patients had secured cannabis medicine through MCAP since its launch.
Three firms selected to supply patients
Despite this, products from three firms have been selected to supply patients these are Canadian firms Aurora and Tilray and MGC Pharmaceuticals, of Australia.
Aurora High CBD Oil Drops and MGC’s CannEpil are both are CBD-based drugs with the latter being used to treat epilepsy. Tilray is providing THC and CBD oral solutions.
MCAP sits under Ireland’s Misuse of Drugs Regulations, and the three products have now been re-scheduled after meeting quality and safety requirements.
The introduction of MCAP followed the conclusions of the Health Products Regulatory Authority’s report ‘Cannabis for Medical Use – A Scientific Review’.
The failing Irish system mirrors that of the UK where only a few patients have received medicinal cannabis through the NHS, despite the law change in 2018.
Both compare unfavourably with Germany where Europe’s largest medical cannabis programme began in March 2017 and has helped an estimated 60,000 patients.