In a push to ensure cannabis becomes a legal pain-relief option for those struggling with life-threatening illnesses, the Inkatha Freedom Party is ready to whittle down the Medical Innovation Bill, which was tabled by late IFP MP Mario Ambrosini as a private member’s bill.
IFP chief whip Narend Singh says getting the proposals into law would be “a living legacy” to Ambrosini, the long-standing MP and confidante of IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
A terminally ill Ambrosini, who was battling lung cancer, tabled the bill in Parliament in February 2014 and made an impassioned plea to President Jacob Zuma and the government to decriminalise marijuana for medical purposes during a debate of Zuma’s state of the nation that month.
He revealed: “I was supposed to die many months ago. I am here because I had the courage of seeking alternatives ... in Italy in the form of bicarbonate of soda and here in South Africa in the form of cannabis, marijuana, dagga. It is a crime against humanity not to allow this,” he added.
The bill, which is also known as the “Ambrosini Bill” sought to allow doctors to administer innovative unproven, but harmless, cancer treatments in cases where other treatments cannot provide a cure and on the basis of the patient’s informed consensus, thereby shielding doctors from common law liability and medical profession requirements.
The bill would allow the minister of health to authorise, establish and resource one or more pilot, innovative cancer treatment centres where doctors would be allowed to act in terms of the above. It also called for the government to decriminalise and liberalise cannabis for medical treatment and industrial use.
Responding to Ambrosini’s plea, Zuma said: “I was touched to see the man I have known and worked with for more than 20 years in this condition. I have asked the minister of health to look into this matter.”
Ambrosini took his life in August 2014.
Over two years since the bill was tabled, there has been very little progress in terms of its processing in Parliament, according to Singh, to whom the bill was transferred so he could present it to the health portfolio committee.
Singh told parliamentary journalists yesterday that the committee held a number of meetings where oral and written evidence was given by those who supported the bill and those who opposed it including representatives of the medical research council, medicines control council and a few doctors who spoke about the harmful effects of marijuana on children.
“They mentioned that it was a gateway drug and the use of the drug could seriously impair the children’s ability to think properly and would move them on to other drugs,” he said.
The IFP and the governing ANC entered into bilateral negotiations about the bill, and the ANC was keen to see the bill being passed or legislation being passed that would allow the use of marijuana or cannabis products for palliative care, according to Singh.
But the parties were also awaiting a pronouncement in April this year by the United Nations on whether marijuana could be approved globally for medicinal use. The world body did not approve it.
“We feel as the IFP that the bill is being held back because of the number of elements that are contained in the bill, elements which include the use for medical purposes, use for recreational purposes, its use for religious purposes and its use in the industry and we now are saying the time has come – two years after the bill was placed on the table that we need to just focus on the use of cannabis products for medical purposes,” Singh said.
He said there was reluctance about the use of marijuana, especially its harmful effects on children.
“We have to take the emotion of the harmful effects out of this and bring it down to the pain and suffering that people with life-threatening diseases go through.”
Singh said they were prepared to drop the three other platforms and whittle down the focus of the bill to its medical side only.
“We cannot allow this bill to be dragged on for as long as it has dragged on because millions of people out there require alternative forms of ensuring that pain and suffering can be alleviated in one way or the other,” he added.
“Even if it’s a one-line bill ... we are prepared that should go through in the portfolio committee,” he said.