Concerns over pricing, insurance coverage remain as bill passes through Senate
Medical marijuana may soon be legally sold and available via doctors’ prescriptions, with senators overwhelmingly approving the legislation in a 60-7 vote Jan. 30. The bill, which now awaits a presidential signature, marks a major step toward official acceptance of marijuana use in the country, after the Cabinet of Prime Minister Jan Fischer decriminalized possession of “small amounts” of marijuana for personal use in 2009 and the cannabis-derived drug Sativex was approved for use in 2011.
Though the bill met with little resistance in both houses of Parliament, even senators who supported its passing are somewhat skeptical, as the bill does not include provisions for the drug to be covered by insurance. Marijuana therapy is used for treating atopic dermatitis, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis, to name a few ailments, and advocates of medical marijuana say treatments could cost patients thousands of Czech crowns monthly.
Despite the widespread use of marijuana, with Czechs being the biggest users of cannabis in Europe, there have been few serious attempts until now to legalize its medical use.
Robert Veverka, chairman and spokesman of pro-marijuana website Legalizace.cz, called the bill “absolutely immoral and unethical,” saying its passage will open the possibility for the government to deal hemp for money at the state level.
“For the patients, it will be very expensive,” Veverka tells The Prague Post. “If he needed, for example, 1 gram of cannabis per day, which would cost about 100 Kč, that’s 3,000 Kč per month. Some seniors have a pension of 7,000 Kč, so that’s a large amount of money for them. This law just takes a wide brush to paint the black market white.”
Marijuana is neither a shocking nor taboo topic in the Czech Republic: According to the United Nations’ 2011 World Drug Report, Czechs are the biggest users of cannabis in Europe, with 15.2 percent of adults in the country saying they had used it at least once in the past year, whereas in Western and Central Europe, the average is around 7.1 percent of adults. According to the May 2012 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, 42 percent of Czech students said they had used cannabis – quite a contrast to the European average of 17 percent.
Despite the widespread use of marijuana, its brushes with legalization and government control have been whimsical. In 2009, a nonprofit group called Konopí je lék (Cannabis is Medicine) co-founded the country’s first marijuana dispensary in Prague, the opening of which was attended by then-Mayor Pavel Bém (ODS, Civic Democrats), a doctor and also one of the 2013 bill’s authors. Months after the dispensary’s opening, it was raided by police. The same year, however, Jan Fischer’s caretaker government decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use, approving a table that specified the legal growing of up to five marijuana plants, as well as legal possession of up to 15 grams (.53 ounces) of cannabis. The 2011 approval of Sativex as a treatment for multiple sclerosis seemed to be yet another step toward the legal use of marijuana for medical reasons, yet the 2013 bill is, for many, imperfect.
Alena Gajdůšková (ČSSD, Social Democrats), the first-deputy chairwoman of the Senate, voted in favor of the bill but said she fears the country’s many elderly cultivators of the plant for personal medical use will suffer. For her, the solution would be to allow these individuals to continue growing for private use without the threat of prosecution. According to her, the bill will inevitably benefit big business and will fail the country’s home-growers who make tea or ointments out of cannabis. If medical marijuana is only made available through government-approved providers, she says, personal use like this will still technically be deemed illegal.
“For a long time I’ve supported enabling the medical use of cannabis,” she said after the bill’s approval. “But I have to say I’m very disappointed by what we’ve got on the table today.”
For the first year after this new legislation is passed, only imported marijuana will be allowed for sale, reads the bill, “to ensure standards.” The cannabis will initially be imported from Israel and the Netherlands, and after that the State Institute for Drug Control (SÚKL) will issue licenses, valid for up to five years, under strict rules for home growers and farmers. The SÚKL will supervise the conditions of selling, some of which include a rule that Czech-grown cannabis must be cheaper than its imported counterpart. They will also determine crop areas and work with farmers. Senator Jan Veleba, who is also president of the country’s Agricultural Chamber, welcomed the bill and said each new commodity that farmers can produce is good for the agricultural sector.
But the involvement of insurance providers deeply complicates the issue. According to Bém, the bill would not have passed if insurance coverage had been included in its content. Gajdůšková counters that, if small amounts of cannabis are tolerated and not criminalized, so too should senior growers be tolerated. Involving government regulation, she says, will severely fail ailing individual growers.
“These medicines are proven; they’re very efficient but shouldn’t be a luxury good,” Gajdůšková said. “That is completely unacceptable.”
For their part, insurance companies are wavering. State-run VZP, the country’s largest health insurance provider, has refused to comment on the bill until the president signs it into law. It is only then, and after the Health Ministry alters its list of drugs that also outlines prices, that VZP will offer comment as to whether or not it will cover patients’ costs for medical marijuana treatments.
Recreational use of marijuana, though decriminalized, remains illegal.