Will Czech approval of cannabis-based medicine end ban on marihuana research?

The Czech Republic has become the eighth EU member state to approve the use of a cannabis-based medicine, the British-made Sativex. Czechs also rank among Europe’s top marihuana consumers, and possession of the illicit substance for personal use has been decriminalized. But the country is one of few members of the European Union that still ban the cultivation of hemp for medical purposes.

Fans are going at full speed at the Prague-based Hemp is Healing Clinic. Tucked away in a small courtyard in the city’s Žižkov neighbourhood, this non-for-profit organization has its own cannabis mini plantation; in a small lab, several chemists produce cannabis extracts that the clinic offers to patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

But all of this happens in breach of the law. Last month, the clinic’s head and founder, Dušan Dvořák, in fact landed a suspended sentence for growing cannabis. When asked for his opinion on the registration of Sativex, Mr Dvořák points to the paradox: while recognizing the beneficial effects of marihuana, the authorities still treat those who cultivate it for medicinal purposes as drug purveyors.

Dušan Dvořák
“It’s good that it happened because now it’s official that cannabis heals. But the authorities still ban research. I’ve been asking the Ministry of Health since the year 2000 to tell me what I need to do to be able to research, and they say, ‘You can but we can’t allow you to grow cannabis.”

The Czech Republic has one of the highest consumption rates of marihuana in Europe, and new legislation, which took effect last January, reflects that. The possession of five or less cannabis plants is a misdemeanour, rather than a criminal offence. But growing cannabis for medical purpose is still banned – unlike in most other EU countries including the UK.

The British based producer of Sativex, the firm GW Pharmaceuticals, acquired a government licence to grow some 20 tons of cannabis each year. Mark Rogerson is a company spokesman.

“We have a special licence from the UK’s Home Office which allows us to grow cannabis for medical purposes, conduct clinical trials with it, and of course of to make medicine out of it. We produce about 20 tons of material each year, and that is, of course, entirely legal.”

People at Prague’s Hemp is Healing Clinic have their reservations about the effects of Sativex, which is used for treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis. They claim to have produced substances that are more efficient, tailor-made for each patient, and also much cheaper. But last month, Dušan Dvořák was given a suspended sentence of 28 months for having cultivated 300 kilos of cannabis.

So will the registration of Sativex in the Czech Republic bring about a change to the law? The Czech government’s coordinator for drug policy, Jindřich Vobořil, is sceptical.

Jindřich Vobořil,  photo: Archive of the Czech Government
“I’m not sure. In the eyes of top Czech politicians, this is not an important issue at the moment. The junior coalition party, Public Affairs, started a debate on this topic but I’m not sure about the results. Also, some MPs talked to the media about it, but again, no discussion has taken place. We would like to push for such a debate, and this is also part of our Action Plan for the next two years.”

Many experts and champions of medical marihuana now hope that Czech politicians will eventually come to realize the absurdity of the situation, and amend the country’s drug legislation, allowing Czech firms and researchers to come up with their own cannabis-based medical products.