By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) - The Swiss government aims to make it easier for patients to get medical marijuana, proposing on Wednesday to allow prescriptions for cannabis to treat people suffering from cancer or other serious conditions.
The proposal, separate from a Swiss government push to allow some cities to experiment with recreational marijuana, would replace the current system, in which those seeking medical cannabis must apply for an exception from the Federal Health Office to get what is otherwise an illegal drug.
Marijuana is sometimes used to help cancer patients manage chronic pain, to help boost their appetites, and to reduce spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis.
"The proposal makes it possible for doctors to directly prescribe cannabis as part of their treatment," the Swiss cabinet said in a statement.
"Growing and processing medical cannabis as well as its sale would then be possible under a system regulated" by Swissmedic, the country's drug regulatory agency.
A formal comment period runs until mid-October.
Just how insurers will handle reimbursement for medical marijuana will be dealt with separately, the government said.
"The biggest obstacle to automatic reimbursement is that the scientific evidence of efficacy is not yet sufficient and the conclusions of existing studies are sometimes contradictory," the government said.
The Federal Health Office will launch an evaluation project to help answer questions about whether the drug is an effective remedy and, if so, for what conditions, it said.
Switzerland cited increased use of medical marijuana in the treatment of a variety of conditions as driving its initiative. Federal authorities granted around 3,000 exceptions for people seeking to get medical marijuana in 2018.
Elsewhere, medical marijuana is also booming.
Portugal's parliament has approved a bill to legalise marijuana-based medicines, following in the footsteps of Italy, Germany, Canada and parts of the United States. Britain made a similar move in July 2018.
Companies are moving, too.
Swiss drugmaker Novartis last year struck a deal with Canadian medical cannabis maker Tilray to support commercialisation of some of its products.
Separately, Switzerland is tinkering with laws that now forbid recreational marijuana, a potential precursor to joining other countries and an increasing number of U.S. states -- Illinois became the latest this week -- in legalising the drug.
A plan released in February could let up to 5,000 people smoke marijuana in pilot studies.
(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Gareth Jones)