Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE Medical Innovation Bill ran into its first hurdle on Wednesday, with Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow health minister Wilmot James saying that his party would not support its proposals to legalise the commercialisation of cannabis.

The bill seeks to legalise dagga for medical, commercial and industrial purposes, and proposes that a medical practitioner working at a pilot health centre be allowed to administer unproven treatments without fear of litigation.

While the DA supported attempts to foster greater innovation in cancer research and treatment, it would have "great difficulty" in supporting the commercialisation of cannabis, said Mr James.

"We would like to see a Mayo Clinic for SA — a dedicated cancer institution for research and treatment. That’s what I want this bill to provide for," he subsequently told Business Day. The bill had too wide a scope, he said, describing it as "over-reaching".

The bill is a private member’s bill, and was the work of the late Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini.

Mr James, who was a close friend of Mr Oriani-Ambrosini, appealed to MP’s to leave emotion aside and consider the bill rationally.

He said it was important that the bill protect patients from unscrupulous or ill-informed doctors. There were situations in which it might be appropriate to give patients experimental treatments, such as in the Ebola outbreak gripping West Africa, but this needed to be approached cautiously, he said.

"It is really important to have checks and balances, and safeguard so we don’t end up creating procedures and institutions that give physicians far more discretion than they should have."

The bill was presented to Parliament’s health committee on Wednesday by IFP MP Narend Singh, who has taken ownership of the bill. He said the proposed legislation was born of Mr Oriani-Ambrosini’s experience as a cancer patient.

Several countries, including Cameroon, Mozambique, Albania, Austria and Canada allowed cannabis to be used for medicinal purposes. "That is something we are asking the government and this committee to consider very carefully."

Over 1,900 public comments had been received on the bill, he said.

Robin Stransham Ford, who co-authored the bill with Mr Oriani-Ambrosini said they had both lived longer than doctors had predicted because they had travelled overseas for cancer treatments that are not available in SA.

Committee chairwoman Lindelwa Dunjwa and several African National Congress MPs said expert input on the bill’s cannabis provisions was required.