It is now nearly two years since the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised to establish a compassionate access scheme for the medicinal use of cannabis in certain circumstances and for patients with specific conditions, namely, drug-resistant epilepsy, spasticity in multiple sclerosis patients and nausea and sickness in cancer patients who are being treated with chemotherapy. However, progress in establishing this scheme has been very slow. It is close to two years since the original promise was made. We are all aware that there are many families under great stress and strain because of the absence of such a scheme. I meet them on a regular basis. We all know the story of brave Vera Twomey who had to spend three months in Holland with her daughter Ava under the supervision of a paediatrician with an interest in neurology so as to validate the utilisation of cannabidiol, CBD, and tetrahydrocannabinols, THC, for Ava's epilepsy. Ava is doing well and her quality of life has improved. However, there are many other families under stress and strain.
There are now 12 patients in Ireland who receive CBD and THC via an import licence arrangement. That involves families of patients with cancer or other very difficult conditions having to travel to Holland, in the main, to secure the medicine in the Transvaal Pharmacy. As many in the House will recall, the access programme was proposed as an alternative to the legislation that was put to the House by Deputy Gino Kenny, which many of us felt was not a realistic or pragmatic approach. The medicinal cannabis access scheme was recommended by the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, expert group and would allow for the monitoring of usage, refinement of dosage and so on. The absence of a compassionate access scheme represents the absence of compassion for the many families and patients who seek legal access. Unfortunately, many families are accessing this medicine illegally, which has its own dangers.
I received a letter yesterday from the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. It is a bit disingenuous towards the end in suggesting that the Department has no control over commercial operators. It also refers to difficulties in sourcing medicinal cannabis thus: "The Department of Health has no control in relation to business decisions taken by commercial product manufacturers and has no powers to compel companies to supply their products to the Irish market." No-one ever said that the Department had such powers. What is required here is proactive and intensive engagement with companies. I am aware that there has been engagement, although the correspondence does not suggest so. I also understand that it is within the capacity of a company to supply medicinal cannabis here in the first quarter of 2019 if a push can be made in terms of intense engagement between the HPRA, the Department of Health and the company concerned. It is simply not sustainable that people would continue to access this medicine through importation licences.