By TOBY STERLING, Associated Press
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (March 18, 2003 9:55 a.m. EST) - Just what the doctor ordered?
Pharmacies may fill prescriptions for marijuana and patients can get the cost covered by insurance, according to a law that went into effect Monday.
Doctors in the famously liberal Netherlands have long recommended marijuana to cancer patients as an appetite enhancer and to combat pain and nausea. But it is usually bought at one of the country's 800 "coffee shops," where the plant is sold openly while police look the other way.
"The health minister said, look, doctors are prescribing marijuana to their patients anyway, and there are many medicinal users, so we may as well regulate it," said Bas Kuik, a spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Health.
The law also seeks to standardize levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana.
The percentage of THC in Dutch marijuana has increased sharply in the past several years. A government-sponsored study released this month estimated average THC content at around 15 percent, compared with 6.6 percent in imported marijuana.
The Dutch parliament approved the change in policy by a large majority in 2001. The law stipulates that patients can get medical coverage for marijuana use, though most policies don't yet cover pot.
Kuik said that the Dutch government will license several official growers later this year. In the meantime, pharmacies will have to decide for themselves where to get the marijuana.
Many pharmacies use marijuana distributed by Maripharm, a company that advertises its product as "standardized, vacuum-packed and bearing patient information and dose advice."
Prices for marijuana in coffee shops vary widely - from about $50 to $400 an ounce. Maripharm's product at the Dam Pharmacy costs about $225 an ounce.
The Dutch government's stance is in stark contrast to U.S. federal law, which says growers of marijuana for medicinal purposes face the same prison terms that recreational growers do.
Pharmacies typically leave it up to patients whether they want to smoke the weed or make tea from it, but Kuik said smoke-free "inhalers" are also under development.
Recent studies show a fractional increase in the number of people in the Netherlands who say they have tried marijuana, while overall use levels remain well below those in the United States, despite its widespread availability here.