*Editor’s note: This week’s Ask the Doctors is Part 2 of a series on international medical marijuana laws and access to medicine worldwide. To read Part 1 of the series, click here.
“I am a medical marijuana patient and making arrangements to travel outside of the U.S. are there particular countries where I can use or get access to medicine?”
Let’s pick up where we left off last week, when we examined medical marijuana in the Americas and Europe.
Cannabis use generally isn’t tolerated in most Middle Eastern countries. However Israel leads the world in both medical marijuana research and number of patients with access to medical marijuana, primarily because medical marijuana is supported and funded by the Israeli government. Through a program called MECHKAR, Israel provides access to medical marijuana for patients with debilitating diseases, and those at the end of life. Currently, between 10-20 doctors in the country prescribe medical marijuana, and the process to gain access operates through a traditional medical framework, thus it is unlikely that visitors to the country would be able to participate in the program.
In Africa, there are few countries which have made significant headway on providing access to medical marijuana. However, two countries stand out for considering medical marijuana. Rwanda and South Africa both have introduced legislation to legalize cannabis for medical use. The current status of these legislative efforts is still up in the air. In South Africa, the bill would allow the ministry of health to authorize a health center to treat a minimum of 100 patients at any time. In Rwanda legislation has been approved by Parliament, however, it is unclear how patients will be able to gain access at this time.
Given the long history of cannabis in what has become known as “eastern medicine,” it should come as no surprise that China leads the world in intellectual property as it relates to cannabis. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, 309 of the 606 patents on cannabis originate in China. Herbal medicines which treat constipation and peptic ulcers are in development, along with other functional foods which contain cannabis. In spite of all of these patents, public smoking of cannabis remains a crime in China and criminal penalties are particularly stiff. Outside of China, Bangladesh and North Korea are the only other countries in Asia where cannabis is widely available. In Bangladesh, marijuana is a significant part of the traditions in the country, and while there is no defined medical system for marijuana in Bangladesh, consumption for tourists is generally accepted. In North Korea, marijuana is not considered a drug and the purchase and use are widely accepted, but there is no organized medical system.
Australia is currently in the process of advancing marijuana reform through the legislature. There is wide public acceptance of the medical benefits of marijuana and a number of states in the country are currently conducting clinical trials on patients for various medical ailments. The prospects for reform look positive at this point however, it remains to be seen whether the medical marijuana market will be open to patients from other countries.
As you can see, the medical use of marijuana is clearly a phenomenon which is gaining traction the world over. It is important to note that many countries are reluctant to pursue reforming marijuana laws due to their participation in United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
This treaty prohibits signatory countries from engaging in the production and supply of specific drugs, of which marijuana is included, except under license for medical and research purposes.
In 2016, there will be an opportunity to reform this treaty at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session. This meeting will examine the Single Convention and explore opportunities for reform.
Given the rapid and widespread change in marijuana laws around the world, it seems like momentum is gathering toward reform. One can only hope this is the case, so that it becomes much easier to access or transport medicine when engaging in international travel.
Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.
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