At European Parliament Conference on Medical Cannabis, Ireland Takes Center Stage
December 2, 2016
BRUSSELS — Representatives from 11 countries gathered at the European Parliament in Brussels this week for a conference on medical cannabis. It was a historic and at times emotional event at which the Irish took center stage.
Ireland, as a speaker at the Nov. 30 conference reminded the audience, has a long relationship with medical cannabis. Graham de Barra, director of the organization Help Not Harm reminded the audience of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, the Irish doctor who in the mid-1800s published the first scientific articles on cannabis in Western medicine. “Today, Ireland remains an incubator for research in cannabinoids,” De Barra said. “However, medical cannabis is currently prohibited by criminal law.”
That could soon change. In July a bill to legalize medical cannabis was submitted to the Dáil, Ireland’s lower house of parliament. It was set for debate the day after De Barra spoke. “We’ve been very busy and we are very pleased to be here,” he told the audience, “but also very eager to get back to Dublin tomorrow where we will have an unprecedented debate in our parliament.”
As it happened, the Dáil passed the bill after Health Minister Simon Harris said he would not oppose legalization. Harris said he still has concerns about certain details of the bill, but he won’t impede its progression toward the committee stage. While the Irish measure still has to clear several hurdles before it becomes law, it’s the latest of several European countries to take meaningful strides toward legalization this year.
“It is now time to legalize cannabis for medical purposes in the EU.”
Stefan Eck, German Member of European Parliament
Europe’s interest in medical cannabis was evident at the Brussels conference, hosted by the GUE/NGL (European United Left–Nordic Green Left), a left-wing political group in the European Parliament. The event consisted of two panels and a total of 14 speakers. As the conversations unfolded, interpreters scrambled to translate the avalanche of information into popular European languages.
The urgent need for regulation was highlighted by every speaker. What’s also lacking is large scale research and training of doctors. Ireland’s De Barra said the primary policy goals should be “to provide adequate patient health care, quality assurance, and investment into clinical trials.”
Dominique Lossignol, a Belgian cancer and pain treatment specialist, said most of his colleagues still have misconceptions view cannabis as medicine. “A lot of neurologists don’t know about cannabis,” he said. “They just know cannabis as a Rasta drug. They think that it is for reggae men.” He stressed that while cannabis won’t work for all patients, “if it works for someone, we have the obligation to give it to the patient.”
Lying on an adjusted hospital bed, Dr. Franjo Grotenhemen, chairman of the International Association for Cannabinoids in Medicine (IACM), gave an insightful update on recent developments in Germany. “The German government has prepared a bill,” he said. “It was forced by court decisions to do this. But as a political leader, you say: ‘I was not forced, I changed my mind.’ So the politicians changed their mind in all German parties, that patients should have access to cannabis products if they need them.”
Most speakers focused on patients needs and the incredible results seen with cannabis treatment, but some also brought up legalization’s economic benefits. Saul Kaye, an Israeli pharmacist and cannabis activist, painted a picture of how his country benefits from its medical cannabis program, the oldest in the world. “For regulators in the room,” he said, “it’s no longer a question of if, it’s now a question of how and when you do it. Every decision you make has an implication in the value chain that you can create. This is an industry that is exploding worldwide, an industry that will make a lot of money and that is the driver. What you need to consider is whether you want to be part of that new initiative or whether you want to block it.”
The Israeli Parliament has unanimously voted to expand the country’s medical cannabis program, Kaye said. “The market size, if you’re looking at what this could potentially mean for your country, is a $200 million dollars currently in Israel, with very, very few players. ” he said. “We predict it’s going to grow 10 times that market within 24 months.
“That’s a reflection of what’s going on around the world: Cannabis is happening.”
The entire room fell silent when a young Irish woman, Vera Twomey, began a story about her six-year-old daughter, Ava, suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy that causes severe and frequent seizures. Ava was put on 11 different forms of medication, but none worked. “From the time she was four months old, when she was diagnosed with this condition, her neurologists told us she would never walk, she would never talk, she would be in a wheelchair,” Twomey said. “They told us we would have to look into residential care for my daughter in the future. And that that was what we had to accept. And I told all of them no. I told them that she was going to get up and walk, and they laughed at me. It took us until the time she was three years old to get her up and walking, but she did it.”
Ava’s seizures continued unabated until last September, when cannabis oil made from the famous Charlotte’s Web strain, which is high in CBD, became available to her parents. “In the month of October, which is the only full month that Ava has been on CBD oil, her seizures have reduced by 90 percent,” her mother said. “Her life has changed and we’re being introduced to just a new person.”
In his closing remarks, a German member of the European Parliament, Stefan Eck, took a clear and strong position. “For 5,000 years, cannabis has been used for medical purposes, and in my opinion it is now time to legalize cannabis for medical purposes in the EU as well. I believe that, as soon as possible, we should at least implement a Europe-wide legalization of cannabis for medical purposes. This is the minimum. And we should always keep in mind that the ban on cannabis is absolutely illogical as long as other substances, like nicotine and alcohol, are allowed. I would like to thank you for taking part in this important conference and close by saying unequivocally: Legalize it!”
Derrick Bergman is a Dutch journalist, photographer, and activist who has been covering cannabis culture since 1994. He is a founder and the current chairman of the VOC, the union for the abolition of cannabis prohibition. Since 2010, he's served as the coordinator of Cannabis Liberation Day, the biggest cannabis and hemp event in the Netherlands. He is a father to three sons and has been growing his own cannabis for more than two decades.