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South Africa on track to Legalise Medical Cannabis

South Africa may legally regulate medical cannabis as soon as April 2017.

The South African Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health has said that the government will amend the Medicines and Related Substances Act 1965 (MRS Act). Under the reformed legislation, cannabis – known locally as “dagga” – will be downgraded from a banned Schedule 7 drug to a Schedule 6 drug, meaning it can be prescribed. The revision of the law is to be drafted by late January 2017 and may be implemented by April 2017, according to South Africa’s News24.

The first step towards the legalisation of medical cannabis in South Africa began in early 2014, when MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini proposed a private members bill, the Medical Innovation Bill (MIB). The MIB would have legalised and regulated medical cannabis, but did not gain sufficient support in parliament.

Months after its failure to pass, Oriani-Ambrosini committed suicide while suffering from chronic pain during the last stages of terminal lung cancer. Within the MIB proposal, he had advocated for cannabis oil as treatment for chronic pain.

In the two years since Oriani-Ambrosini’s death, the South African Medical Control Council has conducted extensive research into medical cannabis. Based on evidence of its medical potential, his party – the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – has pushed for the reintroduction of the MIB into parliament.

The party’s chief whip, Narend Singh, has expressed that he would consider withdrawing the MIB if the revision of the MRS Act met the objective of the IFP’s bill: effectively regulating access to medical cannabis.

Singh has approached the government's decision with cautious optimism. “This heralds a great step forward for public access and research into the use of medicinal cannabis", he said, "[so] what matters now is that the department ensures that access to medicinal cannabis will not be restricted to the rich".

This change in legislation may come as a shock to many South Africans. The stigma surrounding cannabis is strong, and South African authorities account for 42 per cent of all cannabis seizures in Africa, according to the United Nations.

Under the amended version of the MRS Act, recreational cannabis cultivation and use will remain illegal, but medical cannabis cultivation will be regulated by the South African Health Products Regulation Authority. This regulatory body will be created by the amended MRS Act, and will have the power to provide licences to cultivators.

In early 2016, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) published the results of clinical trials of patients’ responses to cannabis oil. As a result, the rollout of medical cannabis in South Africa will be primarily targeted at patients who suffer from the ailments mentioned in the SAMRC report, including chronic pain, nausea, and glaucoma.

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