When Greece legalized medical cannabis in 2017 it was a sign of hope. In a country where cannabis had been stigmatized for so long, and where cannabis consumers faced harsh penalties, it seemed like a new era had finally arrived.
The move toward embracing medical cannabis also brought in outside investment dollars and the promise of new jobs. Both welcome signs of economic activity for a country that has been infamously mired in recession and austerity since 2008.
Today, three years since the announcement of legal medical cannabis in Greece, hope has been replaced by disappointment and frustration. Zero progress has been made. What happened?
Current Greek Government Freezes Out Medical Cannabis Issue
When Greece legalized medical cannabis in 2017, it was under the leadership of the Syriza government and then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Before the administration could get the cannabis industry up and running, the party was voted out of the top spot during the 2019 elections, replaced by Greece’s long-running conservative party New Democracy.
While current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been praised for his government’s handling of COVID-19 and has his hands full with brewing geopolitical tensions with Turkey, his administration has so far refused to even discuss medical cannabis.
“Unfortunately, at this moment in time, things are literally on ice. There’s nothing happening as far as moving ahead with the changes that need to be made,” says Jacqueline Poitras, one of the top medical cannabis advocates in Greece. Poitras founded the advocacy group Mothers for Cannabis (MAMAKA), when she saw how the plant helped improve her daughter’s quality of life with retractable epilepsy.
Poitras has given countless medical cannabis talks and participated in conferences across Europe. She worked closely with the previous Greek government, bringing focus to the need for medical cannabis. The current government, however, continues to shut her out.
“Without some sort of clear position from the current government as far as cannabis goes, it’s very difficult to move ahead on anything. You can’t get the doctors interested, you can’t get the pharmacists interested, you can’t get anybody interested who belongs to the more classic space of health,” Poitras explains. “At this point in time, it’s just a non-issue for this government.”
Since the beginning of March, Poitras says, the Ministry of Health has ignored her requests to meet and discuss the issue of medical cannabis. She believes that the total reluctance will continue until Prime Minister Mitsotakis gives the nod to move forward.
Poitras admits that she is about ready to give up trying to make progress with the current government. “I don’t know if it makes any sense even trying to converse with them. We’re at that point. I’m making one last attempt, trying to get them to lift up their heads and look at this issue.”
Ignoring A Legal Obligation & A Leadership Opportunity
According to Article 28 of the 1961 Narcotics Convention, signed by Greece, the country has a legal obligation, after having legalized medical cannabis, to create a government agency to implement and carry out the required functions.
Because of the 1961 Narcotics Convention, Poitras notes, the Greek government can move forward on medical cannabis without any fear of political criticism. In fact, this international convention requires them to do so.
“Creating some kind of cannabis bureau or agency is absolutely necessary because the issue of cannabis in Greece at the moment is so complicated, involving six different ministries in some way or another,” Poitras explains. “And the only way you can get anything done is by having some sort of organization or an office that is responsible for bringing together all those different ministries and making things actually work.”
This is a win-win situation for the Greek government, she continues. “It’s really a dream come true for a government at the moment, to have all the laws in place. They just need a ministerial position to clear up some gray areas, and this could be something that this government could do that would add a lot of value in the long-term – and they’re not paying any attention to it. They don’t know how much they’re missing the bus.”
Poitras senses that if given just five minutes with the Prime Minister of the country, she could convince him to support medical cannabis in a more responsible manner.
“They just don’t realize right now how big of a gift it is. It would make the investors happy; it would make the patients happy, and we would be opening up a whole new area of business for Greece.”
The Start Of Grassroots Support For Medical Cannabis In Greece
Poitras’s cannabis journey – and the eventual founding of MAMAKA – began when she saw CNN’s 2013 documentary Weed, which documented the story of the young girl Charlotte Figi and her family. When Poitras saw how CBD helped Charlotte with her seizures, she decided it might help her daughter Maia, who was born with Aicardi syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that includes genetic malformation and compromised structures in the brain.
“At that time in Greece and in general Europe, there was nothing available,” Poitras recalls. A friend brought some low-concentration CBD oil from Holland, which seemed to help, and afterward, Poitras found another person in Europe who was making oil for his own son who had autism.
“I started using oil with Maia in 2014. Her condition includes very severe physical and mental disability, and I don’t think her seizures will ever go away completely, but that was never my hope. I always just wanted her to be in the best condition that she could be, so over the years I’ve tried quite a few different oils from the U.S., Canada, and all over Europe,” Poitras explains.
Currently, Poitras has her daughter on a full-spectrum oil, which seems to help best. “She’s doing really well. We might go maybe 10 days without a seizure, which for Maia is huge. Before cannabis, there were times when she would have 10 seizures in a day.”
While the reduction of seizures is a huge medical benefit, Poitras emphasizes that it’s the other benefits cannabis has brought to her daughter that have inspired her to advocate for medical cannabis. “We saw a lot of other changes with Maia, not only with her seizures. We saw changes in her strength, her ability to walk, her emotional understanding, and even her IQ,” Poitras reveals. “I would say that she understands more and is able to express a lot more than she was before starting cannabis.”
Since founding MAMAKA, Poitras has been able to share these experiences with other families who have children struggling with intellectual or physical disabilities. “Fortunately, there are people who will react very well even to CBD isolate – which is legal in Greece – but most people need at least a little bit of THC for the best results, which is not legal here.”
Today, MAMAKA continues to grow through its Facebook group, where families and medical cannabis supporters can stay connected. “We give as much advice as we can without stepping into the role of doctor, and the community has gained enough knowledge that they’ve started helping each other. It’s really become a patient self-help group.”
Greek Doctors Laughing At The Idea Of Medical Cannabis
Mina Chondrou, MD, who focuses on holistic medicine through her homeopathic clinic, uses CBD with almost all of her patients. One of the things she appreciates most about cannabis as medicine is the crossover of benefits she sees in her patients. “Cannabis is a holistic tool for treatment because if you take it for an autoimmune disease, for example, it can help other things like sleep or stress, or other issues you may have. It works on the whole body, not just the one symptom,” she says.
Because THC remains illegal in Greece, practitioners like Chondrou can only use CBD supplements, which a lot of people cannot afford without government support. “THC is also important for diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain issues, and autoimmune diseases, but patients do not have safe access to THC-rich cannabis here,” she says. “Some people order it from other countries, or they find it on the street. And you cannot control the quality, which is a big problem.”
Chondrou, who is also a member of the Athens Medical Association, has had a hard time persuading a lot of her colleagues to get curious about the potential of medical cannabis. “Most doctors here don’t know about it. Some oncologists accept cannabis, saying it’s only for the pain. But they don’t know the whole picture. They don’t understand that THC can help kill cancer cells through apoptosis, which is very important,” Chondrou notes. “It’s a shame that this medicine is not being used for cancer therapies.”
There are a lot of doctors who don’t even know about the endocannabinoid system (ECS), Chondrou continues. She recalls how some of her colleagues have laughed at her when she told them about the ECS or THC-induced apoptosis. “As the years have passed, and they’ve started to hear more about medical cannabis, they are slowly changing their tune but are not fully convinced,” Chondrou says, adding that she and a few other doctors in Greece hope to create a group or association for physicians who are interested in cannabis and cannabis research for therapeutic protocols.
What’s more, Chondrou believes that Greek doctors would be open to a cannabis education program if it were sponsored by the state or the medical association. “Most of the doctors here are very conservative, so they are negative toward cannabis because they see it only as an illicit drug that will lead users to take other illicit drugs like heroin,” she says. “These are outdated misconceptions about cannabis, which too many doctors are holding onto. Education is the only way to make progress.”