Ireland’s government is once again teasing the prospect of loosening cannabis laws, but critics remain unconvinced the latest statements are anything more than hot air.
Simon Harris, health minister, said this week he believes 2019 will be a breakthrough year for medicinal cannabis in Ireland, with new laws and a support network in place to allow domestic farmers to grow the plant.
However it is two years since Harris first announced that a medicinal cannabis access programme would be launched, and nothing has materialised in that time.
The government has blamed an inability to find an approved supplier able to export to Ireland, despite carrying out a series of trips to other European Union states to research distribution.
Irish representatives recently visited Denmark to sit with several government regulatory bodies and other stakeholders in the medical cannabis production and supply chain.
“The aim of these meetings was to hear about the Danish cannabis access programme and enquire if a supply of medical cannabis products could be sourced. Good progress was made on both fronts, but a continuous supply of product may still be problematical to find in the short term,” said Ireland’s health ministry in a statement.
Harris said that his department is working to ease the difficulties in accessing cannabis product and learning from the experience of other countries that have faced similar problems.
He said “huge progress” was being made in rolling out the scheme, but like other countries going through the medicinal marijuana legalisation process, there are roadblocks to quality supply.
According to a letter read out in the Irish parliament by opposition figures, “a Canadian company is in discussions with an Irish-based distributor to supply their products to the Irish market”.
There are no further details “on the date of availability of these cannabis products and no import licence application has yet been sought by the Irish distributor to bring these products into the country”.
An import licence application has not been made.
Leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin said: “This company supplies all of Europe and the bottom line is that someone needs to get moving on this. Officials going to Denmark and elsewhere is simply going off in new directions.”
Martin said two years on from the initial promise, the government has done nothing to move the matter forward.
“The agreed approach was to set up a medicinal cannabis access scheme but progress has been too slow,” he said. “This issue can be resolved. The product can be made available in Ireland early next year if a push is made.”
The mooted access programme would allow patients with multiple sclerosis, those experiencing nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, and those with severe, refractory and treatment-resistant epilepsy to use cannabis-based therapies.
Harris said under the scheme even controversial medicinal cannabis CBD and THC will be allowed.
The main difficulty it the government faces, it said, is that only Canada and the Netherlands currently permit export of such cannabis products, which meet acceptable quality control standards, beyond their borders.
The department has told media it is not aware that quality-approved medical cannabis products are available on the UK market.
According to Harris, neither he nor his team have control over business decisions taken by commercial product manufacturers abroad and he has no powers to compel such companies to supply their products to Irish market.
While the Netherlands permits exports of cannabis dried herb, it does not permit commercial export of their oil-based cannabis formulations.
Only patients who present a valid medical prescription to an authorised Dutch-based pharmacy can get medical cannabis oils from the Netherlands.
Until this is resolved, doctors are operating under the current ministerial licensing route, which allows them to prescribe medical cannabis for their patients.
Twelve individuals have been granted licenses to get their medicine from Dutch pharmacies, but they must travel to the Netherlands to get it.
In recent weeks, some individuals have been detained at Irish customs returning from other areas of Europe, such as Barcelona with supplies, of medicinal cannabis, causing outcry from campaigners.
In an interview with Irish TV station RTE, Harris now says making cannabis widely available in 2019 is a “major priority”.
“This is not about the recreational use and people smoking joints,” he said. “This is about using in a controlled way, in a monitored way, with the support of your clinician, a product that could ease your pain and suffering after you’ve tried all the conventional treatments.
“This is a major priority for me and I really want to see this happen in 2019.”
He also said he was open to Irish farmers growing the drug “in due course”.
“Does it make sense to grow your own in Ireland rather than be dependent on importing a product? I think quite frankly it does,” he said.“You can’t obviously do that overnight,” he said. “There is quite a lead in time and there are patients who need this product as soon as possible.”