Advokatska kancelarija Milenković Beograd, Stari Grad

Advokat Nemanja Z. Milenković

Maja Zivanovic Belgrade BIRN May 16, 2019

While their neighbours in the region are winning access to medicinal cannabis, Serbian users of cannabis-based treatments for a range of conditions face an uphill fight for legality.

Ana Seke was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child and rarely did a night pass without her sleep being interrupted by seizures. Until, Seke says, she tried cannabis oil.
“After 22 years of taking prescribed medicines, of believing in doctors, I decided to do something for myself,” she told BIRN. “I took my first millilitre of oil and for the first time in 22 years I had a quiet night without any seizures.”

In doing so, however, 44-year-old Seke broke the law in Serbia, where authorities have refused to follow a trend in the region of liberalising laws on the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
Seke, who like other users of cannabis for medical reasons waived her right to speak anonymously for this article, is a member of the Belgrade-based Initiative for Change in the Legal Regulation of Cannabis, IRKA.

Encouraged by developments in Serbia’s immediate neighbourhood, IRKA has stepped up a campaign with letters, marches and a concert in front of the Serbian parliament to lobby lawmakers to decriminalise the use of cannabis.
Their fight, however, risks getting harder with the potential passage of proposed chances to the criminal code that would increase the penalties for cannabis possession.


For some the risk is too great. Dragoljub Mrdjic, who like Seke suffers from epilepsy, spent 105 days in detention after he was arrested in February 2017 for possession of cannabis and cultivating a few of his own plants for personal use.

He is now standing trial and hasn’t used the drug since. “But until then, it replaced 11 prescribed medicines I had to take on a daily basis,” Mrdjic told BIRN.
“We’re sick and someone is banning us from being treated,” he said. “I don’t want to deal with criminals and dealers.”

Behind the curve

In 2015, Croatia became the first Balkan country to legalise the sale and use of treatments containing THC, the active element in cannabis, though consumers continue to complain about the strength and availability of products sold in pharmacies.
North Macedonia followed suit in 2016, allowing also the cultivation and export of the plant, and the World Health Organisation, according to a report in February, is considering removing cannabis from the “most restrictive category” of a 1961 international drug convention.
Other countries in the region are looking at adopting similar legislation. Serbia, however, is not. In fact, Serbia’s Criminal Code envisages fines or jail terms of up to three years for personal use and makes no apparent distinction between cannabis and drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
In 2015, Serbian Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar indicated that a change in the law permitting cannabis for medical use was likely, but the ministry backtracked in March this year over misgivings about standards of composition and production of cannabis oil, according to the Serbian daily Politika.

BIRN contacted the ministry for comment but had received no reply by the time of publication.

Now, the justice ministry has proposed tightening penalties for those caught with cannabis.
Belgrade-based lawyer Nemanja Milenkovic said the changes envisage prison terms of between three and 10 years for possession of a ‘larger amount’ of the drug.
“Quantities are not specified,” he said, “and judges will have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis.”
Some people who use cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of a range of conditions get through large amounts each month.

While some, who have been diagnosed with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s disease, can hope to be acquitted, Milenkovic said, others risk prison terms.
“Nowhere is it specified what is a ‘larger quantity’, but usually whoever owns a couple of hundred grams will be in great danger from the Serbian judiciary,” he told BIRN.
“Other defendants who claimed that cannabis improves their mood, helps them because they have mental disorders, and had a large amount of cannabis, they were all sentenced to more than three years in prison because the court treated this larger amount as intended for sale.”
Question of health, not politics

Vukasin Krstic gets through more than 120 euros-worth of cannabis per month, a considerable sum in a country where the average monthly wage is about 444 euros after tax.
“It costs me a lot, because Serbia still hasn’t legalised cannabis,” Krstic, 48, told BIRN.
Krstic began using cannabis in November last year as a treatment for acute depression brought on by insomnia and years of working night shifts. He said it had replaced three prescribed medicines that had caused him to put on weight and made it difficult to function day-to-day.
All the users BIRN spoke to said they bought cannabis on the street. The oil is usually then homemade, given it is too expensive for many to buy.
IRKA activists say they have written repeatedly to the authorities and to the Serbian president and prime minister. They even appealed to the Constitutional Court. But all to no avail.
They have won some backing from smaller political parties, such as the Greens, but are shunned by the main parties in socially conservative Serbia.
This month, the group organised a protest and concert in front of the Serbian parliament in the capital, Belgrade, laying on cookies laced with “a domestic plant”, said IRKA member Milos Simic.

Simic, 60, suffers from a number of health conditions including Hepatitis C. He said that in IRKA’s six years of existence, roughly 4,000 people had approached the organisation for help and advice.

“I might not be alive today if I didn’t use it,” he told BIRN.
The state stands to gain, too, Simic argued, from the potential tax revenues.
Krstic said he saw cause for optimism.
“I see many politicians and local branches of political parties liking and following IRKA’s initiatives on social networks. I’m sure that the moment will come soon when I can enter the pharmacy and buy it,” he said. “This is not and should not be a political issue. It is a matter of health.”

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