The Dutch took another pioneering step toward sane cannabis policies this week. Prescription medical marijuana distributed to pharmacies by the Dutch government went on sale Monday in the Netherlands, making it the first country in the world to so regularize marijuana as medicine. Canada preceded the Netherlands in recognizing medical marijuana, but the herb is not available in pharmacies there.
Under regulations adopted by the Health Ministry and its medical marijuana agency, the Bureau for Medicinal Cannabis (http://www.cannabisbureau.nl -- in Dutch only until later this year), Dutch doctors can prescribe medical marijuana for chronic pain, nausea, and wasting in cancer and HIV/AIDS patients, relief of spasms in Multiple Sclerosis sufferers, and for people with Tourette's syndrome. Doctors had previously been allowed to prescribe marijuana, but pharmacies could not offer it for sale.
According to the ministry, as many as 7,000 Dutch citizens use medical marijuana, with many of them buying it in Amsterdam's famous coffee houses. Now they will be able to get their prescriptions filled at one of Holland's 1,650 pharmacies or at an additional 400 hospitals or doctor's offices.
"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 Bureau of Medicinal Cannabis, at a press conference announcing the move. "It was ridiculous that people were using this drug while no doctor was permitted to prescribe it, despite the fact that scientific studies showed benefits," he said. Scholten also cited quality control concerns with patients buying the herb on the black market. "This is a safer method, because the quality is assured, and it will allow doctors to better monitor patient response," he said.
The pharmaceutical cannabis will be in the form of buds -- not hash -- and the bureau is emphasizing that it should be used as a tea to dilute its strength. The bureau also emphasized that medipot should be prescribed only as a last resort when more conventional treatments fail.
The medipot will be supplied by two Dutch companies who have been granted licenses to grow select strains in laboratory conditions. They will sell it to the Health Ministry, which in turn will make it available to pharmacists in five-gram containers. The five-gram units will sell for roughly $50 to $60, depending on the grade, a price higher than in the coffee shops. Dutch officials attribute the price difference to stricter quality controls and the collection of a value added tax on prescription drugs.
The two companies, Maripharm (http://www.maripharm.nl) and the Institute of Medical Marijuana (http://www.medicalmarijuana.org), both offer quality-controlled, high-grade cannabis. Ironically, the Institute of Medical Marijuana is headed by an American expatriate glaucoma patient who fled the US after being arrested and having his property seized. In an interview with Radio Netherlands, James Burton explained how he began growing his own cannabis after seeing opportunities to participate in glaucoma marijuana research vanish during the Reagan years. After being arrested and losing everything, he moved to the Netherlands. "It was the only place in the world at the time, where you could grow cannabis, and with one of the best eye-hospitals in the world located in Rotterdam," he said.
Burton's operation will deliver 10 kilos per month to the health ministry, he said. "Each plant is individually numbered," he said. "It has a starting date, an identification number and a pharmacy crop number, so that all the cannabis is recallable and traceable." And delivering medical marijuana is the right thing to do, Burton added. "It's the first time it has ever been done in the world. The Dutch are pretty compassionate and tolerant," he said. "No one would say that a dying patient or someone in a wheelchair should not take cannabis to alleviate pain."
The Dutch move is being watched with interest by other countries, according to the Bureau of Medicinal Cannabis' Scholten. Britain, Belgium and Luxembourg expressed special interest in seeing how the Dutch approach works, he said. Canada has granted special dispensations to hundreds of medical marijuana patients, but does not allow the herb to be sold in pharmacies. In the US, the federal government sends storm troopers after medical marijuana patients and providers.