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Poland is Having a Medical Cannabis Revolution

Poland has undergone a political and societal shift in drug-related attitudes in the past few years, and there are growing indications that cannabis is increasingly accepted as a medicine within this European nation. Recent findings from the Polish Centre for Investigating Public Opinions (CBOS) revealed that 73.4% of Poles support the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Underlying this interest in ending criminal sanctions for cannabis is a burgeoning desire for medical cannabis. Recently published data from the Ministry of Health shows that the medical cannabis market has grown significantly since the policy enactment in 2017. In 2019, only 2,909 prescriptions were issued for medical cannabis in Poland. This number increased to 27,687 prescriptions in 2023 (as shown below). A substantial growth can also be seen in the overall volume of medical cannabis that has been issued. 33.2kg of medical cannabis was dispensed in 2019, compared to 4.6t in 2023 (Figure Two).

 

Number of fulfilled prescriptions for medical cannabis. Source: FaktyKonopne, 2024

 

 

Quantity of medical cannabis distributed via pharmacies (in grams). Source: FaktyKonopne, 2024

 

Multiple factors revolutionising access

The big question is: how did we get to this point? Why is it that access to medical cannabis has improved so drastically in Poland over a relatively short, two-to-three-year period? There are many potential reasons, and the changes are likely the result of various factors coming together.

When medical cannabis was first legalised, not much happened: supply was limited, and doctors were hesitant to prescribe it. This was impacted by a lack of guidelines for cannabis prescription (which have still not been produced), and a climate where many doctors were scared of prescribing a ‘new’ and controversial medicine.

Time was also an important factor that encouraged familiarisation with the plant’s benefits and medical applications. It also allowed for additional sources of prescriptions for medical cannabis to develop. Crucially, Polish residents interested in obtaining a medical cannabis prescription can do so through their doctor; this includes General Practitioners, or specialist doctors. This is different to other European countries like Britain, where only specialist doctors can prescribe it, creating a natural bottleneck in access.

Since the COVID pandemic, Polish people can also use ‘e-recepta’, an online system which simplifies access to prescriptions – including medical cannabis. Patients need only to fill in an online form request, which is then verified by a surgery; the patient must then have a quick online consultation with a doctor. Instead of a physically issued prescription, the patient receives a four-digit code which can be used to purchase specific medicines across Polish pharmacies.

 

The emergence of hemp surgeries

The final and probably most important development is the emergence of specialist cannabis surgeries called Klinika Konopna (or a ‘hemp surgery’ in English), which have become popular in recent years. Klinika Konopnas consist of specialist doctors who took conscious steps to educate themselves on medical cannabis. They can be brick and mortar or completely online. These doctors are generally much more willing to prescribe medical cannabis for a wide range of conditions, from Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, to anxiety and sleep deprivation.

In my recent study (awaiting publication) of 571 cannabis users, I found that Klinika Konopnas have become the preferred source for a prescription, with 47% reporting to use them. 32% reported using the ‘e-recepta’ system to access medical cannabis. 13% of those surveyed used a specialist doctor other than one at Klinika Konopna, while only 7% reported to have used a traditional doctor.

 

Surveying future challenges for Polish medical cannabis

These trends have revolutionised access to prescriptions for medical cannabis in Poland. Online consultations are rapid, meaning people can see a doctor and have their prescription ready for pick up within an hour. The prescription is then valid in any pharmacy in Poland.

While increased access is a success, there are still ongoing issues to resolve. One of the main ones is with regionally variable access to medical cannabis. Within my research, people reported having good access to medical cannabis; others complained that Polish pharmacies (especially in smaller towns) often did not stock cannabis. As a result, patients need to be creative. A friend of mine explained to me that they often need to find out in advance if medical cannabis is stocked in their local pharmacy, and if they carry the specific strains they would be indicated. Only then will they approach their doctor for a prescription. Alternative pharmacies are otherwise too far away, and they risk their prescription expiring in 30 days and losing money as a result.

Nevertheless, these developments are exciting and a significant number of  respondents in my study found it easy to obtain a prescription for medical cannabis and to access medical cannabis from a pharmacy (38% and 37%, respectively). Many of these people also report to be recreational users who find ways to use the medical system. A week ago, the deputy Minister of Health Wojciech Konieczny announced in late April that he will consider increasing the volume of imported cannabis. This will hopefully secure improved access for patients. However, in less promising news, Konieczny’s superior, the Minister of Health Izabela Leszczyna, expressed that: “Poland is not ready for legalisation of cannabis, and we must be better educated before that happens.”

All in all, the experience of Poland shows that a market will always find its way. When the initial policy changes were being debated, Polish policymakers clearly expressed that they wanted to avoid a laissez-faire ‘Californian’ model and ‘backdoor legalisation.’ A few years later, it seems like Poland is on track to have one of the best and widely used systems for medical cannabis in Europe.

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