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Anthony Rees
(Secretary-General: TNHA)

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC) have settled on a compromise on the Medical Innovation Bill (Bill No. 1 of 2014), agreeing that the scope of the Bill will be limited to the provision of Cannabis derived medicines for palliative care only.

Essentially this means that these medicines may only become available to terminally ill patients where no orthodox medical treatments are considered viable.

At a press briefing I attended today on the Bill hosted by the IFP’s Narend Singh, Chief Whip of the party, and sponsor of the Bill (after the death of the Bill’s originator and drafter, Mario Oriani-Ambrosini MP), said Parliament have not yet made a declaration on the ‘desirability’ of the Bill, which means it remains in the formative process and needs to be further amended to be ‘fit for purpose’.

Singh stated that the IFP and ANC had held ‘multilateral talks’ on the Bill recently and had settled on the compromise. The Bill will be amended to strip it of other innovative medicines originally included in the text, including natural health substances, rendering it a Cannabis drug exemption Bill.

When queried about these limitations on the scope of substances deemed ‘innovative’, Singh merely noted the concern.  When asked about future Cannabis research, Singh stated that the Medical Research Council (MRC) was entrusted by government to conduct further research into the viability of Cannabis as useful for treatment.  The MRC has however recently published a report titled ‘Cannabinoids For Medicinal Use’ which concludes that it had found moderate or low evidence for its effectiveness in treating various diseases.

Comment: Medical research on new substances is both expensive and time consuming, typically taking years to verify any repeatable results.  Therefore if this Bill ever passes into law, it may be many years before permissible innovate treatment with Cannabis-derived drugs become available.  Despite the Bill being intended to grant fast-track access (create an exemption) to innovative medicines which have not yet been approved by the Medicines Control Council, the pegging of allowable substances to be used under the Bill to MRC approval negates its intended purpose.

At the press conference Singh informed those present that Cannabis has does not cure cancer, effectively dismissing thousands of documented cases where cancer sufferers have gone into remission using the plant and its oil fractions.  The statement makes me question who has been advising Singh since Mario Mario Oriani-Ambrosini and Adv Robin Stransham-Ford passed away.

Another contentious narrative which seems to underplay what the Department of Health will consider in terms of this Bill, is that it favours pharmaceutical forms of Cannabis, made from standardised, isolated and even synthetic forms of cannabinoids. Dr Anban Pillay, Deputy Director-General of the National Department of Health, is on record as saying that his Department are reluctant to approve cannabis products in raw herb/oil form and would seek purified and synthetic versions which they can trust (in other worlds produced by pharmaceutical companies).

Singh then stated that the IFP had held meetings with a representative of the Medicines Control Council and the Director-General of National Department of Health, Ms. Malebona Precious Matsoso.  In Matsoso’s view, the National Department of Health is bound by local legislation and UN conventions on drugs, and can only allow the use of Cannabis drugs to bona fide patients under Section 21 of the Medicines and Related Substances Act (Act No 101 of 1965).

According to Singh, the IFP made several calls to the Medicines Control Council requesting information on obtaining Section 21 exemption for Cannabis medicines, to which they were shoved from pillar to post and to no avail.  The IFP will be taking this issue up further with the Minister of Health.

When asked whether this Bill would end up like a similar Medical Innovation Bill tabled by Lord Saatchi in the UK, where Big Pharma has effectively hijacked it, Singh responded that the pharmaceutical industry also has huge sway over health policy in South Africa, and that he and his party would do their best to prevent this from occurring here. Despite his reassurance in this regard, I am disappointed that the original Bill presented in Parliament by Mario Oriani-Ambrosini has been misinterpreted and subverted for political expediency.  Already, the compromises made have been too many.

Mario Oriani-Ambrosini had to petition the Constitutional Court despite his ill health towards the end of his life to obtain the right for individual members of the legislature to table Private Member’s Bills.  The Medical Innovation Bill made history as the first Private Members Bill in South Africa.

I cannot but wonder what Mario Oriani-Ambrosini would think today if he knew his Bill was drifting rudderless towards the rocks, and millions who suffer like he did still wait in desperate hope.

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