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Towards a Future for the Medical Use of Cannabis in Europe?

Cannabis: A substance we commonly associate with fun or narcotics, but we seldom think about its place in medical treatments. What is therapeutic cannabis? What is its impact on health? Do cannabis-based medicines slow down brain activity? What are its effects on patients and their (daily) life? On 1 October, the European Parliament adopted its motion for a resolution on the medical use of Cannabis in Europe. Its goal: Debunk the myth of medical cannabis and foster an honest, transparent regulatory discussion about it.

From Prohibition to Science-Based Use?

Our perception of cannabis varies according to cultures. Western countries have prohibited its use for a wide array of applications, including medication. This precautionary approach was introduced to limit the danger and health risks associated with cannabis consumption regardless of the applications. However, prohibition has its limits.

Despite cannabis being considered illegal for recreational purposes, law enforcement institutions rarely file legal procedures in Europe. France numbers around 140,000 apprehensions every year and in the majority of the cases, apprehended smokers are just being reminded the content of the law. Also, in France, around 45% of the youth surveyed admitted they have already tried cannabis, compared to only 30% in The Netherlands. Interestingly, The Netherlands authorises, in certain ways, cannabis for recreational purposes. So, not only does prohibition seem ineffective, but it also disregards the variety of uses and areas in which cannabis can make a positive difference, such as in medication.

Recent research conducted in Western countries has demonstrated the benefits of cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD)[1] in relieving patients from depression, pain stemming from chronic diseases (e.g. Epilepsy or Parkinson) and treating the side effects of chemotherapy, among other things.

As knowledge surrounding the medical use of cannabis evolves, so does the regulatory frameworks around its use.

Fragmented European Regulatory Frameworks for Medical Cannabis

Western countries have started legalising the use of cannabis for medical applications. Canada and a majority of the United States regulate and authorise the use of therapeutic cannabis. The European Union is taking steps in this direction. A majority of Member States have started to recognise the benefits of medical applications for treating certain health diseases.

However, national approaches vary, resulting in a fragmented European landscape when it comes to patients’ ability to access and use cannabis and cannabis-based medicines for medical purposes. As a result, different types of medical applications of cannabis are authorised across the continent depending on the quantity, the types of cannabis (plants or pills), and the levels of THC[2] and CBD concentrations. Furthermore, different conditions are required for patients to access these. Currently, four cannabis-based medicines are authorised in Europe, one of which – Sativex – was approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Towards a European Definition of Medical Cannabis?

Responding to this fragmentation and considering patients’ interests, the European Parliament drafted a motion for a resolution in June 2018, calling on Member States and the European Commission to draw a clear distinction between the medical use and other applications of cannabis with a view to paving the way towards a European regulatory framework for therapeutic cannabis.

The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) stressed the need for “a comprehensive regulation of medical cannabis [that] would translate in additional resources for public authorities and would give a legal and safe access to patients for its medicinal use”. National governments have a duty in making sure that product made available to patients is safe and controlled. Notwithstanding the health aspects, this would provide additional financial resources for public authorities to tap into and limit the illegal market for medical cannabis.

Moreover, the MEPs insisted that research on therapeutic cannabis remains limited and called on the policymakers to properly address research in this field through Horizon Europe, the future European Research and Innovation Framework Programme.

Sponsored by MEPs Dubravka ŠUICA (HR, EPP), Guillaume BALAS (FR, S&D), Urszula KRUPA (PL, ECR), Catherine BEARDER (UK, ALDE), Martin HÄUSLING (DE, Greens/EFA), Estefanía TORRES MARTÍNEZ (ES, GUE/NGL), and Piernicola PEDICINI (IT, EFD), the draft motion for a resolution was adopted by the majority of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI Committee).

Interestingly, the majority of the political groups and of the nationalities represented by the MEPs voted in favour of the text. This demonstrates the paradigm shift that is currently occurring and the rising support for medical cannabis in Europe.

Next steps?

As the ENVI Committee passed the motion, the European Parliament now has 8 weeks to submit the resolution to a plenary vote, which could lead to a European piece of legislation on the medical use of cannabis in the years to come.

Interested in hearing about the future of medical applications of cannabis in Europe? Get in touch with us!

[1] Cannabidiol, which is considered to have no intoxicating properties.
[2] D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, which is considered to be the most psychoactive constituent of cannabis.
Quentin Galland

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