Germany’s doctors are embracing the newly legal prescription of medical marijuana, which went into effect at the start of this month.
“I predict a certain increase of this therapy, though to what extent is unclear,” said Josef Mischo of the German Medical Association, referring to how doctors can now treat their patients with the drug.
“As a medical community, we welcome the fact that therapeutic possibilities have now been expanded.”
Before the German parliament (Bundestag) passed the new legislation in January, the only way for patients to use cannabis as a treatment was to apply and wait for special, individual approval - and the bar was set fairly high for those seriously ill.
Only around 1,000 people had been given this permission when the law was passed, and some even died while they were waiting for their request to be processed. Users also had to take on the costs themselves.
But now doctors can simply write their patients a prescription if, for example, they suffer from chronic pain or a serious loss of appetite due to an illness. Health insurance providers also now must cover the costs of cannabis treatments.
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To oversee the new distribution and control of medical marijuana, a new Cannabis Agency has been established under the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM).
German politicians said the law was intended for those with serious illnesses - like multiple sclerosis or cancer patients suffering the effects of chemotherapy - but it is still not exactly defined as to what kinds of patients can be prescribed the drug.
This is also because, as Mischo explains, there is still relatively little data about the range of illnesses and symptoms that can be alleviated through cannabis use.
“It is good that the legislators largely left it up to the doctors to decide if cannabis should be used,” said Mischo, who is also president of Saarland’s medical association.
Mischo said that he can already see how doctors will increasingly prescribe the drug under the new law.
“Right now I can already imagine that many doctors will now, for one thing, test to see if their chronic pain patients get better with cannabis.”
Last year Germany imported 170 kilograms of cannabis for medical purposes, according to a government response to an inquiry from Die Linke (The Left Party), as reported by publishing group Funke Mediengruppe on Friday.
This was nearly double the amount imported the previous year at 92.8 kilograms, and nearly four times as much as in 2014. Germany will continue to import the marijuana it needs until the state can set up its own supervised production. Private producers could also apply for licenses.
The German Cannabis Association (DHV) said they want more clarity on how businesses could gain such licenses.
“Concrete, detailed regulations will determine whether it will actually make sense for entrepreneurs to apply for licenses,” said a representative of the lobby organization.
“What needs to be clarified is: what quantities will be given out, what varieties, what are the quality requirements, what is required of the businesses, and how many licenses will be issued.”
And while the law is likely to expand cannabis use and its health benefits for those with illnesses, doctors are still sceptical about whether the law should be expanded further to allow recreational consumption.
“For recreational use, we cannot say based on studies thus far that it is harmless,” said Mischo, who is an addiction expert.
“If someone uses cannabis for a long time as a teenager or young adult, there are negative effects. But it is not clear whether there are better protections against this when it is limited and legal, versus when it is illegal.”