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The war is speeding up Ukraine's efforts to legalize medical cannabis

An activist holds a placard depicting cannabis leaves during a protest in Kyiv in May 2017. Ukraine is moving closer to legalizing medical cannabis, fueled in part by Russia's war.
Sergei Supinsky
AFP via Getty Images
An activist holds a placard depicting cannabis leaves during a protest in Kyiv in May 2017. Ukraine is moving closer to legalizing medical cannabis, fueled in part by Russia's war.

Ukraine's government is moving to legalize medical cannabis, in part due to the trauma wrought by Russia.

Minister of Healthcare Viktor Liashko wrote on Facebook on Tuesday – more than 100 days into the war – that Ukraine's cabinet had approved a bill "on regulating the circulation of cannabis plants for medical, industrial purposes, scientific and scientific-technical activities to create the conditions for expanding the access of patients to the necessary treatment of cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from war."

The draft bill will now head to Ukraine's parliament, where it will need to be approved by at least 226 votes, the Kyiv Post reports. It's a reworked version of a bill that lawmakers originally failed to pass last summer.

Liashko suggested there will be more support for legalizing medical cannabis this time around.

"We understand the negative consequences of war on the state of mental health," he wrote. "We understand the number of people who will need medical treatment as a result of this impact. And we understand that there is no time to wait."

Growing an industry and expanding access to pain relief

He said the bill will ensure a "full cycle of cannabis-based drug production in Ukraine," stressing that the country will gradually develop its own industry rather than relying on imports.

It would give the government strict control of the cultivation, production and sale of drugs, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Patients would be able to get those products through a doctor's prescription, according to Forbes.

Liashko stressed that cannabis drugs are not "competitors" to narcotics, and that completely different measures are taken to regulate their circulation. He alluded to communications campaigns against cannabis that have tried to discredit its medical value.

On the contrary, the Health Ministry notes, cannabis can prevent suffering and improve treatment of more than 50 conditions, including PTSD, neurological diseases and sleep disorders. Cannabis-based drugs also play a key role in palliative care, alleviating pain in patients with cancer and HIV, Liashko added.

Dozens of countries have legalized medical marijuana in some capacity in recent years, and some Ukrainian lawmakers and advocates had long been pushing Ukraine to do the same.

The role of cannabis in Ukraine's history – and future

Kira Rudik, a member of Ukraine's parliament, noted on Twitter that the liberal Holos party initiated the original bill back in 2019, adding, "We strongly believe it is about mercy, not drugs."

And a national poll conducted by then-presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2020 found widespread support for medical cannabis, as the Kyiv Post reported. Nearly 65% of respondents said they supported the legalization of medical cannabis to relieve pain for people with terminal illnesses, while 29% were opposed.

Ukraine partly legalized the use of certain cannabis products – synthetic cannabis-like chemicals dronabinol and nabilone, as well as cannabis extract nabiximols – for medical purposes last April.

Just months later, however, the cannabis legalization bill was sent back for revision after it failed to get enough votes in Parliament, with 184 lawmakers voting in favor, 33 voting against and 61 abstaining.

Recreational cannabis is still prohibited.

Ukraine has a long and winding history with cannabis, having cultivated hemp for centuries. Soviet Ukraine was one of the world's biggest manufacturers of hemp, which was used for oil, cloth and food.

But the country began to stigmatize cannabis and the people using it over time, as Lana Braslavskaia told Forbes in late February. She manages marketing and public relations for Kyiv-based cannabis website AskGrowers, and says Ukraine's journey to legalizing cannabis is only just beginning – and very much impacted by the ongoing war.

"Before the war, we had forecasts in the company regarding the legalization of first medical and then recreational cannabis in Ukraine," she explained. "The time frame varied from 5 to 10 years, depending on the change of power and the growing up of a new generation. Now, it is quite difficult to build a new forecast, because it is not at all clear when this war will end."

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.