Medicinal cannabis should be considered to treat patients with certain conditions, a major new report has found.
However, it warns that scientific evidence supporting the safe and effective use of cannabis products for medical treatment is ‘insufficient and at times conflicting'.
The report by the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) examined the potential use of cannabis for medical purposes in this country. It stated that as scientific evidence in this area is insufficient, any policy decision on access should be controlled and confined to the treatment of specified medical conditions. These are:
-Spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis (MS) that is resistant to all standard therapies and interventions
-Intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, despite the use of standard antiemetic (anti-vomiting) regimes
-Severe, refractory (treatment-resistant) epilepsy that has failed to respond to standard anticonvulsant medications.
In all of these cases, cannabis use should be used ‘under expert medical supervision'.
"Currently, the scientific evidence is insufficient to offer the public the necessary assurances in respect of the medical use of cannabis products across a wider range of possible conditions. This is something that will be kept under review.
"With regard to the specified medical conditions, the use of cannabis products would be initiated under expert medical supervision on a trial basis, in situations where patients have failed to respond satisfactorily to standard treatment regimes," explained Prof Tony O'Brien, chairman of the expert working group, which examined the current scientific evidence.
The HPRA emphasised that for cannabis to be authorised as a medicine, it must meet certain regulatory standards, like all other medicines on the market.
"As we are not yet at that point, permitting access to cannabis for medical use is ultimately a societal and policy decision, which has to balance the lack of scientific evidence against patient-led demand.
"As things currently stand, if cannabis products are to be made available through an access programme, it will be important that patients and healthcare professionals are aware of the limitations that will apply. The safety, quality and effectiveness of these products cannot be guaranteed or compared with the standards that apply for an authorised medicine," commented HPRA chief executive, Dr Lorraine Nolan.
In response to this, the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has announced the establishment of a ‘compassionate access programme' for cannabis-based treatments.
"I understand this is a matter of great concern to many and I believe this report marks a significant milestone in developing policy in this area. This is something I am eager to progress, but I am also obligated to proceed on the basis of the best clinical advice.
"The report notes that this is ultimately a societal and policy decision and I have decided to proceed with the advice of the HPRA and establish an access programme for cannabis-based treatments for certain conditions, where patients have not responded to other treatments and there is some evidence that cannabis may be effective," he explained.
Minister Harris said he will now refer the HPRA report to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health. Department of Health officials and the HPRA will then consult with stakeholders on how such an access programme will work.
Department of Health officials will also continue to analyse the HPRA report and advise the Minister on any legislative changes that may be necessary.
The Minister thanked the HPRA and the members of the expert review group for their work on the report. It can be viewed in full here