Europe has yet to come up with a unified approach to medical marijuana. The Dutch will tell you it is legal to use the drug to treat certain illnesses; while the Swedish don't recognize any medical use for cannabis at all.
"European policy is not really changing at all and I don't think this issue is even on the European agenda. The topic is too controversial and too political," said Catherine Sandvos, a legal expert for the Hague-based Cannabis Bureau, a Dutch national agency aimed at providing high-quality cannabis for medical purposes.
Ms. Sandvos's native Netherlands has led Europe when it comes to legalizing medical marijuana, which it treats separately from marijuana legally available at one of Amsterdam's famous coffee shops. The Dutch police stopped enforcing laws against marijuana in 1976 following an overall tolerance policy in the country. "It's hard when you try to explain to outsiders that it is illegal to grow cannabis in the Netherlands, but that it is tolerated to buy it," she says.
But those who buy the drug on the streets are not getting the quality severely ill patients would need. The Dutch government set up the Cannabis Bureau -- the only institution of its kind in the continent -- in September 2003.
"The state realized that so many people wanted to use cannabis, so it said 'why not give it to them via prescription instead of them accessing the drug illegally,' " Ms. Sandvos added.
The Cannabis Bureau ensures that patients who have a prescription from a doctor are getting marijuana that has been tested to make sure it doesn't contain any pesticides or bacteria. Not only does the Cannabis Bureau sell cannabis across all pharmacies in the Netherlands through a prescription, but it also distributes the drug to Italy, Finland and Germany through the Ministry of Health of each country. According to the agency's data, it sells around 100 kilos of cannabis every year.
The situation couldn't be more different in the U.K., where it is unlawful to self-medicate cannabis regardless of the disease people suffer from. In 2005, Barry Quayle and Reay Wales, who were both afflicted by serious and chronic conditions, found no relief in prescription drugs and turned to cannabis to alleviate their pain. But a U.K. court ruled against them.
"The whole debate in relation to the use of cannabis for medical purposes is highly politicized," said Daniel Godden, an associate solicitor for Hodge Jones & Allen LLP in London. Those who say marijuana is relatively safe can face severe political consequences. Last month, Professor David Nutt, the British government's chief drug adviser, was removed from his post after he said the drug was less harmful than alcohol.
Favorable views toward cannabis face opposition from some local politicians and international lobbying groups. Jorgen Sviden, director of Stockholm-based European Cities Against Drugs, which represents 261 cities in 30 countries, isn't convinced of the drug's medical qualities.
"In principle, we don't have an argument against cannabis as a treatment, but we haven't seen any scientific evidence that provides a convincing argument for its medical use," he said. "If in the future we come across proof that cannabis is a good treatment, then this is good."
Some initiatives have managed to stay away from the political debate, however. The U.K. happens to be home to GW Pharmaceuticals PLC, which manufactures a drug based on marijuana extract -- Sativex. Although it has some ingredients that derived from the actual drug, it has been treated by the U.K.'s regulators as a medicine like any other as it doesn't contain the psychotropic substances marijuana does. The company is preparing to launch the drug into other parts of Europe, in partnership with Germany's Bayer AG and Spain's Almirall SA.
GW is hoping to sell its product, which will treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, across all countries in Europe but has initially filed for a license in the U.K. and Spain so far. Paul Cuddon, an analyst with KBC Peel Hunt in London, says he expects the drug to win approval in both countries in the first half of 2010 and then the firm will file for individual approval in each country.
"I'm not anticipating any legal problems in the rest of Europe at all," Mr. Cuddon added. "This is a treatment that is highly different from raw cannabis and it has undergone rigorous chemical trials."
Other countries have tough stances, however. Ireland, for example, doesn't recognize marijuana as a drug with medical benefits. This means that manufacturing, producing, selling or possessing cannabis is unlawful for any purpose. The Ministry of Health is the only government branch that can grant an exception, but a spokesman said it never has.
Noel McCullagh, 34, has learned this the hard way. An Irish citizen, Mr. McCullagh lives in the Netherlands, where he uses cannabis medication to treat the severe effects of his muscular dystrophy. However, Irish authorities have warned him that he will be arrested if he enters his native country in possession if cannabis-based treatment.
In Sweden, the law doesn't recognize the cannabis to have any medical use.
Beyond the debate of marijuana's use, Dr. Willem Scholten, of the World Health Organization, believes patients should have access to high-quality medicine. So if cannabis has medical attributions, "there needs to be a system in place to ensure that patients get their medicine without any contamination and that they get the same content every time."
Despite the radically different approaches in Europe, some believe the continent will eventually adopt it as a medical treatment.
"I can imagine European citizens will eventually think cannabis is a good medicine and that it should be accessible to people who suffer from serious pain as a result of HIV, multiple sclerosis or other grave illnesses," said Brendan Hughes, senior legal analyst of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon.
By JAVIER ESPINOZA
November 27, 2009
Wall Street Journal