Parliament - The bill seeking to legalise marijuana use for the treatment of cancer needed to be amended before proceeding, the Central Drug Authority (CDA) said.
CDA made submissions to Parliament’s portfolio committee on health on Wednesday, saying as it stands, the Medical Innovation Bill was “confusing and if it remains in its current form it could result in more social ills and drug abuse in the country”.
CDA deputy chairman David Bayever said while there had been strong views on the legalisation of marijuana or cannabis for medicinal, cultural and religious use, decriminalising it could result in significant public health risks, including mental illness and an increased cancer burden.
Proposed by the late IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini as a private members’ Bill last February, it advocated for the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes and for beneficial commercial and industrial uses.
The then terminally ill Ambrosini, who was stricken with lung cancer, appealed to President Jacob Zuma to legalise medicinal marijuana as an alternative treatment for cancer patients.
Ambrosini told Zuma he was supposed to have died already, but the marijuana remedy had saved his life, adding that it was a crime against humanity to deny the treatment to millions of cancer patients.
But addressing MPs on Wednesday, Bayever raised concerns about the harm cannabis caused, saying legalising it must be looked at from a medicinal point of view only.
In a country such as South Africa, which was overburdened by the effects of alcohol and drug abuse, legalising cannabis for other uses could add to the burden of abuse, especially among youths, he said.
“We support the use of cannabis if it’s only used for medicinal reasons.
“At this stage we feel that the bill is confusing as it proposes medicinal use and other uses such as commercialisation of the plant, which we believe would add to more social problems that the country is facing.
“Not only do we battle with alcohol and drug abuse, but we also lack treatment centres for drug users. In South Africa only one in 18 users have access to treatment as opposed to countries such as Australia where one in every three users have access to treatment and one in every four in the US,” he said.
While cannabis had benefits – such as pain relief in a palliative care setting – it also posed other health risks, he said.
One of the ingredients in cannabis that needed to be extracted before it could be used for medicinal purposes was THC or tetrahydrocannabinol – the chemical responsible for most of cannabis’ psychotropic effects.
“We are of the view that the harmful effects, including its carcinogenic properties should be extracted and only the ingredients that are beneficial should be used.
“The therapeutic ingredients can be put into a formulation to improve its delivery.”
He said legalisation would also add to the cancer burden as well as social ills associated with drug use.
While cannabis was regarded as a safer drug than alcohol, which had an immediate effect on one’s behaviour, cannabis was also harmful in the long term and needed to be researched further before legalising it for medicinal reasons.
Bayever said “significant science research” had also proved “beyond doubt” that the plant was associated with a range of potential dangers, including cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, cognitive impairment and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar.
IFP MP, Narend Singh, said the party would amend parts of the Bill that propose the commercialisation and industrialisation of cannabis: “We also support the suggestion of the Bill only looking at medicinal and research uses. Hopefully at the end of the day patients who need the medical use of marijuana will not be denied access to it.”
Singh, who described the Bill as a catalyst to the discussions around medicinal use of marijuana, said the party was pleased that parliament was “making progress and debating the issue”.