One day after Prime Minister Freundel Stuart told church leaders the “nefarious” illegal drug – as well as firearms – trade was “haunting” the country and threatening the very safety and security of the Barbadian family, it emerged today that Government was examining the possible use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Senior Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George revealed at a conference on the availability and rational use of opioids that the Ministry of Health was undertaking research into the use of medical marijuana in palliative care.
Dr George told the gathering hosted by the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care, the ministry was collecting “evidence” for use of the drug as a remedy against pain for patients suffering from chronic diseases and cancer.
“The Ministry of Health is currently gathering the evidence with respect to marijuana use in well-defined clinical situations that will include assisting persons in pain management for cancers and chronic degenerative diseases,” he told the medical practitioners and pharmacists gathered at the Hilton Barbados Resort.
The senior medical official said Barbados has been the primary supplier of opioids to Eastern Caribbean countries, and he argued that the use of such drugs, as well as painkillers, was a pivotal part of the palliative process.
“Although the majority of patients with cancer have pain, proper use of opioids and adjuvant drugs can provide adequate relief in most cases. Opioids are the mainstay of pain control in patients with advanced disease, and they are effective in treating most types of pain,” he explained.
The debate over the emotive issue of marijuana use has intensified here in recent times, particularly after Jamaica last year decriminalized small amounts and paved the way for a lawful medical marijuana sector.
Government’s position has not been entirely clear, with Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite stating repeatedly that he was neither for nor against legalization, but that he wanted the right decision made in the interest of Barbadians.
However, the closest anyone from the administration has come to stating an unambiguous position was when Minister of Education Ronald Jones said in June that people found with small amounts of the drug should not be jailed.
“I agree with decriminalizing [the use of small amounts] of ganja. I don’t think that we should flood our prisons, really, for someone who is not selling and all of that, but has a small spliff,” Jones told the opening of the Teachers’ Introductory Programme at Erdiston Teachers’ Training College.
Public discussion on the issue has been driven by the University of the West Indies (UWI), which in May held a panel discussion on Medical Marijuana: Medical Breakthrough or Further Hindrance to The Development of Caribbean Youth.
It was at that function that pollster Peter Wickham disclosed that the Office of the Attorney General had contracted his company, CADRES, to poll public opinion on the possible decriminalization of marijuana as part of a wider study by the National Task Force on Crime Prevention.
That study found almost half the Barbadian population had tried marijuana, one in four smoke it regularly, and 30 per cent supported its legalization for medical or religious purposes.
Retired psychiatrist Dr Ermine Belle, who also appeared on the panel, threw her support behind easing ganja laws to allow its use for medical reasons.
Dr Belle, a former Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Hospital, told the audience medical marijuana was “not a myth, it is here to stay”.
She stressed at the time that there was evidence the drug had been successful in treating diseases such as glaucoma, epilepsy, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis.
Government senator Jeptor Ince had criticized UWI for failing to lead the regional efforts on the research of marijuana for medicinal purposes, to which the university responded that it wanted to, but Government would first have to change the laws.
Today, Dr George contended that with the rising prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases, the need for palliative care had increased.
“There is an unremitting march in the incidence and prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases, especially cancer, which is the second leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Barbados. Cancers which are surpassed only by myocardial infarctions and stroke, has given rise to an increased requirement for palliative care,” the senior medical official said.
“This particular health profile epidemiological shift will necessitate significant palliative care options and interventions. In addition, the chronic degenerative diseases, connective tissue disorders and HIV/AIDS will contribute to the burden of managing the palliative care patient.”
As a result, George stated, the ministry’s goal was to create the most effective service system for ensuring premium palliative care, and reorient the health care system to ensure that the need for palliative care is met across the health sector.
At the UWI panel discussion in May, attorney-at-law Douglas Trotman, who was awaiting word from the Minister of Health on an application for his sick wife to use the drug based on a prescription obtained from a doctor in Canada, argued that the laws of Barbados allowed for marijuana to be used on a permit granted by the minister.
“From 1993 research could have been carried out in Barbados,” he said at the time.
“It [marijuana] can be used for veterinary purposes, there’s permission for it to be used in hospital administered by nurses. So the issue of possession is a problem, but not so if the minister sanctions it.”