HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has today signed legislation to allow for the operation of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme on a pilot basis for five years.
The minister said it is going to take "a little bit of time to fully establish" the scheme, as supply couldn't be brought in until the law was signed today.
"I expect patients to be in a position to access the scheme in the autumn," he said.
It's over two years since the minister announced that a medicinal cannabis access scheme was to be established.
The delay resulted in clashes in the Dáil between government members and the opposition, with problems finding a quality assured supplier of cannabis and a supplier that can export its products to Ireland being blamed for the hold-up.
In March, it was confirmed that a medicinal cannabis product for Irish import was identified, with government sources stating that the legislation to allow the scheme get up and running was to be signed off on before the summer.
The new scheme will facilitate access to cannabis-based products for medical use, that are of a standardised quality and which meet the requirements outlined in the legislation.
Commenting on the launch today, Harris said "it is important to state that there are no plans to legalise cannabis in this country. The purpose of this programme is to facilitate compassionate access to cannabis for medical reasons, where conventional treatment has failed".
"Ultimately it will be the decision of the medical consultant, in consultation with their patient, to prescribe a particular treatment, including a cannabis-based treatment, for a patient under their care."
The medicinal cannabis access scheme will now make it possible for a medical consultant to prescribe a cannabis-based treatment for a patient under his or her care, but only for patients with specific medical conditions, where the patient has failed to respond to standard treatments.
These conditions are:
- spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis
- intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy
- severe, refractory (treatment-resistant) epilepsy
The signing of the legislation today will allow for potential suppliers to apply to have their medical cannabis products assessed for suitability for medical use.
Currently no medical cannabis products are available in Ireland, which is why Department of Health officials had to travel to Europe to consult with initial suitable suppliers.
However, this legislation now means that commercial operators whose cannabis products meet the specified requirements set out in the legislation will be able to supply these products to the Irish market.
Any prospective suppliers can apply to the Health Product Regulatory Authority (HPRA) to have a product considered for inclusion in the schedule of 'specified controlled drugs'.
A controlled drugs licence will be required for possession, supply or import of such cannabis products, and if a supplier is approved, the licence will be processed by the HPRA.
With the signing of the law today, the minister said he expects suppliers to now make applications to supply to the agency.
Pharmacists will also be able to dispense cannabis for medical use to patients under the new law.
He said the cost will be the same as getting any other prescription in a pharmacy.
"You will be assessed on the same basis – if you get the drug payment scheme you will be covered in that, if you have the medical card, you'll be covered under the prescription charges, if you are on long-term illness, you will covered under that," he explained to reporters today.
The minister said this is a "scheme of last resort" to many patients, and said he did not want to put a number on the predicted number of people that will sign up to the scheme, however, one government source said the department believes it could be in the thousands.
In terms of the cost for the State, that is a matter the government will now have to engage with suppliers on, said Harris today.
While it is relatively early days with the programme, Harris previously told this website that Ireland could own its own medicinal cannabis supply in the future.
In an interview for The Explainer podcast, TheJournal.ie spoke to Harris about whether Ireland would one day grow its own medicinal cannabis.
He said he has a "very open mind" about Ireland doing so, stating that his "gut feeling is [that] it should".
The minister went one step further, indicating that the State or the public health service might end up owning its own medicinal cannabis supply.
The idea of Bórd na Móna taking up responsibility for growing Ireland's medicinal cannabis supply has also been floated by Cabinet ministers.
With the launch of the new scheme today, the department also reminded people that offences and penalties for unauthorised supply and possession of controlled substances remains unchanged.
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