Medical cannabis experiment to be launched soon

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Philippe Hungen, AFP

As a nearly unanimous French Senate gave medical marijuana the green light on May 28, France will start experimenting the use of medical marijuana for “about two years”, pending the approval of the health ministry.

Therapeutic cannabis may soon be legally available in France to hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from serious pain caused by illness. According to patient groups, somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million patients could be eligible to use it.

“There will be about two years of experimentation with therapeutic cannabis, beginning as soon as the health ministry gives the green light,” Professor Nicolas Authier, the head of pharmacology at Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital Centre’s pain clinic, told FRANCE 24. Authier heads the committee of experts charged by the National Agency for the Safety of Health Products of evaluating the practical arrangements for the distribution of medical marijuana. The committee’s report will be released on June 26.

The experiment “will be set up very quickly in the coming weeks,” confirmed Jean-Baptiste Moreau, LREM’s (The Republic on the move) MP contacted by FRANCE 24. He supports legalising medical marijuana. “The challenge is ensuring a French supply chain for the production [of these pharmaceutical products]”.

He hopes his district of La Creuse, where elected officials are trying to boost the local economy and asked in 2018 for a government’s permit to cultivate and produce medical-grade cannabis, will benefit from it.

A tightly controlled experiment

But lucrative business opportunities could still be a long way off. “For the moment, medical cannabis production is not authorised in France,” said Authier. Furthermore, he continued, “[the crops] will be grown in closed fields or greenhouses and will require significant investment. We will have to control the temperature, humidity and sunshine. It isn’t conventional agriculture”.

During the trial period, which could last until mid-2021, “we will probably need to import pharmaceutical products [from countries where medical cannabis is legal] until a French supply chain is set up”, said Authier.

French producers will not only need to learn to grow the crop but to comply with European rules for producing medicine of a consistent quality.

The use of medical cannabis will be strictly controlled. Doctors will be permitted to prescribe it only as “a last resort, after trying other available therapeutic [pain] treatments”, said Authier. In December 2018, the National Agency for the Safety of Health Products identified possible applications for medical cannabis: cancer, certain types of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, palliative care, and pain that does not respond to usual treatments.

“We will probably need to widen the scope of eligible illnesses,” Senator Esther Benbassa (of the Greens party), who opened the Senate debate on May 28, told FRANCE 24.

No legalisation for recreational use

Senators of the Républicains party are worried that medical cannabis is a “Trojan horse”, the beginning of a slippery slope towards legalising marijuana for recreational use. Authier does not share their concerns: “There is little risk that medical cannabis will be abused for recreational purposes. […] It has different users with different objectives. Those who take codeine for pain and those who smoke opium are taking the same substance but they don’t have the same purpose. Similarly, medical-grade cannabis will not satisfy those looking for psychoactive effects.”

There will be, for example, less THC – the most abundant cannabinoid and the most present in the cannabis plant – in medical cannabis than in the cannabis smoked regularly by 11 percent of French people aged 18 to 64, according to the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

The upcoming regulatory changes – pending the ministry of health’s approval – will allow only for medical experimentation, not for random consumption.

“Therapeutic cannabis is not a drug, it is medication,” says Authier. “The question of legalisation won’t come up before 2021, and only following this experiment.”

But MP Moreau is open to the idea of legalisation for recreational use. He said he plans to propose an investigation into other uses of cannabis in France. “For now, we are talking about medical cannabis, but eventually we will have to consider wellness cannabis [oils, vitamins and supplements with very low levels of THC].”

Source: France 24, Claire Mufson