Medical marijuana use extended in Holland

November 29, 2005

Associated Press, News 24 (South Africa)

The Dutch health ministry has announced plans to extend the country's faltering medical marijuana programme for a year.

Under the programme, launched in 2003, standardised marijuana is provided by a government-licensed grower under controlled conditions and sold by prescription in pharmacies for use or research.

The intention was to build up a base of patients, and give companies a chance to study and register cannabis as a prescription drug, eventually taking over the production.

But in a letter to parliament dated on Monday, health minister Hans Hoogervorst said companies had not yet finished their trials with the drug, few patients were using it, and the programme had so far failed to deliver affordable cannabis.

"The balance between effectiveness and safety is still not known, and doctors are little inclined to prescribe medical cannabis due to the absence of scientific information about it," he wrote.

A ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday the medical weed also was suffering from competition from the unregulated weed, commonly available at cafes under the country's 30-year-old tolerance policy.

Authorities turn a blind eye

Marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but authorities do not prosecute people for possession of small amounts for private use. They also look the other way when it is sold off the books at "coffee shops".

The government sells two varieties ranging from $9.80 to $11.70 a gram. Coffee shops sell marijuana as low as $4.90 a gram, and only the highest-quality weed costs as much as the government's.

"We cannot compete. Our cannabis must be cleaned, bacteria free, regulated," ministry spokesperson Bas Kuik said. "We also have to pay taxes, and that's not true for coffee shops."

In 2004, the programme cost the government $257 000. Kuik said several credible companies may be ready to register cannabis as a medicine by next year and take over production, but Hoogervorst would decide by September whether the programme should be continued.

Medical marijuana is aimed at chronic or terminal diseases such as multiple sclerosis, HIV/Aids, neuralgia, cancer and Tourette's syndrome.

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