As the medical use of marijuana has become legal in 12 EU countries and 24 states in the U.S., there are countries that are still struggling with their authorities to gain decriminalized access to the plant’s medicinal benefits. One of these countries is Serbia, whose cancer mortality rate is the highest in all of Europe, and which increases by 2.5 percent every year, along with the significant prevalence of other severe diseases, the likes of multiple sclerosis. Despite the high rates of diagnosis with these diseases, which many studies have shown that marijuana carries to cure for, the authorities in Serbia show an example of how hard-headedness can serve to prolong the suffering, not just medically, but also financially.
For the past few years, as activists have been taking to the streets of Belgrade almost weekly protesting the government’s ban on recreational use of marijuana, a word about the use of marijuana, or Rick Simpson, oil, has made its way among the thousands of Serbian sufferers and their families who have grown disillusioned with the conventional medical system.
There are even marijuana dealers in Serbia today who supply patients with ready-made cannabis oil to treat their cancer or MS, and some of these dealers do not even seek profit for it, but rather just try to break even by covering the costs of the solvents and marijuana, bearing the whole legal risk all by themselves. “Until things change, until the state gets serious about this, until everyone does his utmost, unfortunately, it will just be people like me trying to ease the suffering of those left without a choice. I don’t do this for fun, I don’t do it for money. I do it because it’s hard to be a human,” one of these volunteers said to VICE in 2015. People just as this guy are doing today something similar to what the hemp oil movement led by Rick Simpson did back in the early 2000s, but unlike the Rick Simpson movement, the people doing this in Serbia have a smaller ability to act cohesively, which puts them under a bigger threat of bearing the consequences each on their own, as well as burdens the patients who seek the oil with a higher cost because it is being produced in small batches. Today, one millimeter of cannabis oil in Serbia can cost you around 100 Euros, which is around $105.
Of course, with the government’s unbending opposition to the use of the oil, patients cannot verify the quality and authenticity of the oil they are using for their treatment, but when faced with a choice between that oil for a high price on one hand, and tormenting pain on the other, it is easy to imagine which any patient would choose. “She’s now on 10ml per month. That’s about 600 euros. That’s very expensive,” said a young man under a condition of anonymity, whose mother uses the oil to treat her cancer. “I tried to grow some myself, but of course, I failed. It’s not something I’ve done before.” His mother has found her relief in it, however, so the man has no choice but to keep providing her with it. “Everything is expensive, except life. You can’t put a price on life itself. Nothing’s more valuable than life. Nothing,” the man said.
“When I went for a check-up after 3 months [from chemotherapy], I was all happy, chemo-free for three months. I told a doctor I had been using cannabis oil. And she said, ‘keep it up.’ That’s what she said, the chief doctor at the check-up. She told me to keep using it! She could see the results were better,” said the man’s mother. “People say I look different healthier than before. They say you look great now. My face was all sallow, yellow, jaundiced. If this really is a cure, it needs to be legalized, man.”
“It is three years of jail time, but I’d gladly do time for mom. I’ll keep risking it, as long as I can get the oil and stay at her side, for her to have it. I’d like to see the judge who’d convict me for such an offense. What would he have done if he had a loved one in a situation like ours, God forbid? Would he be using it? Would he have done whatever it took?” the young man said when he was asked about the consequences the Serbian legal system would make him endure for dealing with such a treatment.
“Some days, I can’t stand watching ballet or fashion shows because, at that moment, I can’t stand seeing functioning, active legs. At that moment, I would chop my legs off if I could. Useless, painful legs that are just a burden for me. But most of the time, I enjoy watching folk dancers, I used to dance myself once. If someone asked me now what would I want most just for 24 hours, I would say just to dance folk dance, “kolo”, one more time,” said a lady living in Belgrade who was diagnosed with arthritis. “When I’m under it (cannabis oil) sometimes, I can clench my feet in ways that I normally can’t, move the legs, imitate movements. Like, I just bend them. It really means a lot to me.”
In 2015, Serbia’s Health Ministry formed a committee charged with the issue of marijuana legalization, and in November of that year, VICE met with Danica Grujicic, a doctor who was on the committee. I put together a transcript of the short interview VICE ran with her, and you will see how everything about her answers is indicative of the medical system’s unjustified resistance to marijuana.
VICE: So, the task force has made its recommendations already?
Grujicic: It’s not a task force. It’s the Governmental Committee for Controlled Psychoactive Substances. We have ruled that the drugs already being produced worldwide, one of the cannabis extract, and the two synthetics, should be registered in Serbia, to find licensed distributors for these pharma companies, and to list doctors given permission to prescribe said medications to patients for certain uses, when other forms of treatment are no longer viable.
VICE: So people will be able to get them only after they’ve tried all these other chemicals?
Grujicic: That is correct.
VICE: Why? Why do you think that the chemical ones are superior to what many say is natural?
Grujicic (with an angry tone starting to build up): No, no. Don’t say ‘chemical.’ They are targeted therapies, which are used for treating certain types of tumors. Cannabis doesn’t cure anything. The only thing proven is that it’s ruinous for adolescent brain development.
VICE: But these are elderly patients.
Grujicic: So what? Have you heard of cannabis psychosis?
VICE: What is that?
Grujicic: It is a psychiatric condition.
VICE: Of what kind? Could you elaborate?
Grujicic: No, it’s not something I’ve been treating. Other doctors do.
VICE: But wait, you must know something about it if this is the reason you avoid the oil
Grujicic: No, the reason I avoid it. Could you turn that off? Would you please turn it off? (Her voice shows growing irritation here) Because there’s no standardized production. Because I have no idea what the oil might contain. I know what real drugs contain. There are records, a manufacturer, there’s specific concentration listed, so I know what to expect. With the cannabinoids, you just can’t tell. Last I heard, in a U.S. lab where this is researched, only the 104th cannabinoid was extracted from the cannabis plant. At this time, the reason I am against cannabis is the safety of patients. And because I am absolutely against legalizing a drug. For me, it is a drug. A patient comes in with fatigue, months of intense back pain, so I prescribe morphine and he gets a good night’s rest. The first in months. Morphine is a wonder drug. It should be in every doctor’s office. Under the lock and key, of course. You cannot leave psychoactive drugs just lying around. There is a rule. But it’s an amazing drug. I don’t know why my colleagues are so hesitant to prescribe it.
VICE: Why do you consider cannabis a drug?”
Grujicic: Because it is. It contains THC. It has psychoactive effects.
VICE: And what is in morphine?
Grujicic: Same. But 4 or 5 vials won’t turn a patient into an addict.
VICE: But if this is natural if the amount of THC can be controlled under medical observation.
Grujicic: When there is control of it, I wouldn’t mind at all.
VICE: You think it can happen any time soon?
Grujicic: I don’t know. You have to ask the chemists.
The way the authorities and the formal medical system treat medical marijuana all over the world is almost identical, which is a combination of rigidity, vested interests with the pharmaceutical industries, and almost complete oblivion and lack of sympathy towards the patient’s well-being. This attitude, in Serbia and elsewhere, as well as in the states where medical marijuana is still illegal, has brought nothing upon the patients suffering a multitude of diseases but excessive costliness, constant fear of legal consequences, and no choice. “Shout out to all the doctors: take your diplomas and shove ’em!” a patient with MS and cancer from Serbia said to VICE when they interviewed her in 2015. “So, do I keep trying out new painkillers or do I step out and go illegal? Illegal, yeah?”