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News 24 Nov 15

Macedonia Considers Legalising Medical Marijuana

Macedonian's health ministry says it is seriously listening to expert opinion about the possible legalisation of marijuana for medical purposes after a poll indicated widespread public support.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
 Macedonian's health ministry says it is seriously listening to expert opinion about the possible legalisation of marijuana for medical purposes.

The health ministry in Skopje told BIRN that it is carrying out wide-ranging consultations about making marijuana treatments available to people suffering from serious illnesses

"We are consulting experts, specialist doctors from various fields, pharmacologists, representatives of civil society... We believe that they will help us in finding the most optimal solution," the ministry told BIRN.

The ministry organised the first public debate on the subject on Sunday, inviting medics, pharmacologists and civil activists, drug experts and cancer patients to discuss the pros and cons of legalisation.

A recent opinion poll suggested that 70 per cent of Macedonians support allowing the use of marijuana products for the treatment of cancer and other serious diseases.

But some medical experts are advising caution on the benefts of marijuana.

"Studies have shown that it helps patients in reducing pain, but it needs to be proven that it has an anti-tumour effect. We must not forget that a combination of therapies might cause complications," said the head of the state oncology and radiology clinic, Milan Ristevski. 

Marija Darkovska Serafimova, the head of the State Pharmacological Bureau, which is in charge of providing and controlling medications, says that while "there is some research that indicates that the use of cannabis products helps", the studies show that the positive effects are not universal.

But she also said that "legalisation would allow patients to get cannabis with a verified and standardised quality.

Darko Kostovski, a psychiatrist from September 8, a Skopje centre for treatment of drug addicts, said meanwhile that "the initiative for legalisation of medical marijuana does not come from addicts but from patients who are suffering". 

One such patient, Filip, a mid-aged man from Skopje appealed for urgent action during Sunday's debate organized by the ministry.

"I had a lymphoma cancer. I was using the [cannabis] oil and I got cured and I know several other examples like mine... The cause for unsuccessful treatments lies in the low quality of marijuana being sold on the black market, which is normal when medical marijuana is illegal," he said.

One expert said that producing marijuana oil could turn into a profitable business after legalisation because dealers were already making money out of it.

“It is becoming more profitable for those working on the black market to produce the oil as opposed to deal marijuana on the streets... [as] it takes large quantities of marijuana to prepare it. This is a profitable trend that is picking up in Europe,” a source working in pharmacology told BIRN under condition of anonymity.

The opinion poll on the subject of legalizing marijuana was published in September by the M-Prosepekt agency.

Seventy per cent of respondents backed the legalizsation of medical marijuana while 28 per cent were against it. The same poll showed 34 per cent support for a general legalisation of marijuana, while 63 per cent were against.

So far, 13 EU countries have legalised the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The latest was Croatia in October, becoming the first Balkan country to allow patients to legally buy and use marijuana products.

However, professionals in Croatia say it will take some time before such products become available for the country’s doctors to prescribe.

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