• Ukraine: race against time to legalize medical cannabis
  • Ukraine: race against time to legalize medical cannabis

Ukraine: course contre la montre pour légaliser le cannabis médicalInternational

Publié le 31 juillet 2023 par AQIC

KYIV – Niya Nikel's 5-year-old daughter Eva used to have 100 epileptic seizures a day until three years ago when she started taking medical cannabis-based treatment. 

“I was first hesitant, but now I am grateful I agreed to try. Eva is focused, and the number of attacks has decreased from 100 to five per day. She can attend school, sleep longer than eight hours,” Nikel, who is head of Epiprosvita, an NGO that provides support for people with epilepsy in Ukraine, told POLITICO. 

Nikel has spent the past five years advocating for medical cannabis legalization in Ukraine, where cannabis-based treatments are only available for limited use through strictly controlled imports and the closure of borders is now threatening supplies. And the effort may be about to pay off.

A law that aims to create a legal domestic industry for medical cannabis passed its first reading in the Ukrainian parliament on July 13, paving the way for people with conditions ranging from cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder to legally access cannabis-based treatments.

But Nikel is not celebrating just yet. 

As it stands, the proposed law will establish a licensing system for growing cannabis and allow health care facilities and entrepreneurs to purchase, transport, store and dispense cannabis-based medicines. Doctors will be able to prescribe their use. 

But — perhaps crucially — the law keeps cannabis as a prohibited substance, making research and development tricky and the rules around its use confusing. 

Lawmakers are now scrambling to amend the law before its second reading in the fall.

Long-awaited move

Ukraine first tried — and failed — to legalize medical cannabis in 2019, but the Russian invasion has changed the game.

“War makes the problem of pain closer to all sections of the population,” Taras Ratushnyi, activist and co-founder of state drug policy reform advocacy group Cannabis Freedom March told POLITICO.

Last year, the Ukrainian health care ministry reported that, because of the war, 57 percent of Ukrainians are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.  

"We understand that today there are more than two million people in Ukraine who desperately need medicinal cannabis preparations. We realize that there will be even more such people after the end of the war, in particular, such medicines are needed by the wounded soldiers with PTSD,” Mykhailo Radutskiy, head of the health care committee in the Ukrainian parliament said in a statement.

The current bill, submitted by the Ukrainian government in June 2022, has received broad backing, with the Ukrainian health care ministry, the State Security and Defense Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and more than 40 Ukrainian oncologists expressing support.

Not everybody is on board with liberalization. Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the Batkivshchyna Party and a former prime minister of Ukraine known for Tamiflu lobbying during the 2009 flu pandemic, said that while she supports medical cannabis legalization, the current bill is in fact the masked legalization of the marijuana trade, which will benefit only drug corporations.

Olga Stefanyshyna, a Ukrainian lawmaker from the Holos party and one of the advocates for medical cannabis legalization in the Ukrainian parliament, disagrees, saying that the new bill provides liberalization, but also strict control and licensing of the medical cannabis business. "In fact, the legalization will draw huge market out of shadows and significantly decrease the cost of treatment to those patients who now have to seek for medical cannabis illegally to ease their pain,” she told POLITICO.

Working on the wording

However, as it's currently written, the law has two main flaws that may prevent that from happening.

Firstly, while the law permits cultivation of cannabis, it also introduces a ban on imports of raw ingredients until 2028, effectively delaying the production of medical cannabis products until Ukraine's own supply chain is up and running, and creating a vacuum in the meantime. 

“This amendment means that Ukraine will not be able to produce medicines from raw materials imported from abroad. And in fact, this may not give quick access to medicines. Because cultivation and preparation will take several years,” said Stefanyshyna.

And secondly, it leaves cannabis and its derivatives on Ukraine's list of prohibited substances rather than moving them to the list of substances that can be used for medical purposes under strict government control. While specific licenses will be granted for growth, production and distribution, the rules around research and development, clinical studies and use are unclear.

Critics like Ratushnyi from Cannabis Freedom March say that this oversight will limit the usefulness of the law. "If the substance remains prohibited, how can you study it or produce medicine?" Ratushnyi said.

However, Stefanyshyna argues that as the government controls the lists of prohibited substances, they can decide to make this change without the parliament. She is focusing on amending the law to increase control over licensing and remove the article that introduces a ban on the import of raw materials from abroad until 2028. 

Her priority now is to get the bill in better shape before its second reading in the fall, in order to persuade vocal populist critics that it is possible to find a working model and change the bill that would benefit everyone. 

For Nikel, the change of political winds that came with the war was an opportunity that needed to be seized, even if it wasn't perfect. “We still had to push for the bill that has a lot of inaccuracies just to launch a process. But I am sure we will be able to adopt necessary amendments before the final voting,” Nikel said.

SOURCE: Politico