Netherlands makes cannabis a prescription drug
AMSTERDAM, Aug 31 -- The Netherlands will this week become the world's first country to make cannabis available as a prescription drug in pharmacies to treat chronically ill patients, a top Dutch health official said on Sunday.
The Dutch government has given the country's 1,650 pharmacies the green light to sell cannabis to sufferers of cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis (MS) and Tourette's Syndrome in a ground-breaking acceptance of the drug's medicinal use.
"It's a historic step. What is unique is that we are making it available on a prescription only basis through pharmacies," said Willem Scholten, head of the Office of Medicinal Cannabis at the Dutch Health Ministry.
The Netherlands, where prostitution and the sale of cannabis in coffee shops are regulated by the government, has a history of pioneering social reforms. It was also the first country to legalise euthanasia.
The government, which recognised many chronically ill people were already buying cannabis from coffee shops, said it should only be prescribed by doctors when conventional treatments had been exhausted or if other drugs had side effects.
Two companies in the Netherlands have been given licences to grow special strains of cannabis in laboratory-style conditions to sell to the Health Ministry, which in turn packages and labels the drug in small tubs to supply to pharmacies.
The Health Ministry recommends patients dilute the cannabis -- which will be in the form of dried marijuana flowers from the hemp plant rather its hashish resin -- in tea or turn it into a spray in a nebulizer.
As well as pharmacies, 80 hospitals and 400 doctors will be allowed to dispense five gram doses of SIMM18 medical marijuana for 44 euros ($48) a tub and more potent Bedrocan at 50 euros.
The government will start distributing to pharmacies on Monday with a monopoly over wholesale of the drug.
Dutch doctors will be allowed to prescribe it to treat chronic pain, nausea and loss of appetite in cancer and HIV patients, to alleviate MS sufferers spasm pains and reduce physical or verbal tics in people suffering Tourette's syndrome.
The ministry estimates up to 7,000 people in the Netherlands have used cannabis for medical reasons, buying it in coffee shops. It said this could more than double once it is available from pharmacies in pure medical form.
Cannabis has a long history of medical use. It was used as a Chinese herbal remedy around 5,000 years ago, while Britain's Queen Victoria is said to have taken cannabis tincture for menstrual pains.
But it fell out of favour because of lack of standardised preparations and the development of more potent synthetic drugs.
Critics argue it has not passed sufficient scientific scrutiny at a time when researchers are trying to determine if it confers the medical benefits many users claim. Some doctors say it increases the risk of depression and schizophrenia.
The use of cannabis for medical reasons has proved contentious in many other countries.
In July, Canada granted hundreds of seriously ill patients a dispensation from criminal law to buy the drug after a plan for the government to grow medical marijuana was put on hold. The United States upheld a federal ban on medical marijuana in 2001.
"It's the first time it has ever been done in the world. The Dutch are pretty compassionate and tolerant," said James Burton, director of the Institute of Medical Marijuana, one of the two companies licensed to grow the drug for medical use in the Netherlands.
"No one would say that a dying patient or someone in a wheelchair should not take cannabis to alleviate pain," he said.