The Government has passed ground-breaking marijuana legislation in Australia to allow cultivation for medical research and help those suffering from serious illness.
On the 24 February, Health Minister Susan Ley announced that amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act had successfully passed the Senate.
“This is an historic day for Australia and the many advocates who have fought long and hard to challenge the stigma around medical cannabis products so genuine patients are no longer treated as criminals,” Ley said in a statement.
“Under this scheme, a patient with a valid prescription can possess and use a medicinal cannabis product manufactured from cannabis plants legally cultivated in Australia”.
Products such as cannabis oil have successfully been used in the treatment of nausea during chemotherapy, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other neurological conditions.
What does the legislation actually mean?
The new laws mean some growers will now legally be able to cultivate and produce cannabis locally for medicinal and scientific purposes in Australia. The legislation allows for a series of licensing and permit schemes to be established, governing how this takes place.
Prior to the laws, raw cannabis could be imported into Australia in certain situations, but cultivation of the plant was not allowed locally. This system was considered inadequate as it could not “properly manage the risks associated with the potential for diversion of medicinal cannabis products and other narcotic drugs.”
How will it work?
The scheme introduces two categories of cannabis licences: one authorising the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal products, and another which allows research into the cannabis plant for medicinal purposes.
Licence holders are required to ensure their crops are carefully secured and accounted for. Substantial penalties apply for breaches and for undertaking unauthorised activities, such as diverting plants for illicit use.
The process will be regulated by various state and territory government agencies. Additionally, the Secretary of the Department of Health will have the power to order the destruction of cannabis produced by a licence holder, in order to control the level of production and prevent unnecessary accumulation.
The laws will have no effect on the cultivation of recreational cannabis and its use, which remains illegal.
Who gets the products?
Under the scheme, patients with a valid prescription will be able to possess and use medicinal cannabis manufactured under the licensing scheme, provided the supply has been authorised under the Therapeutic Goods Act and relevant state and territory legislation.
This is consistent with research by the National Drug and Alcohol Centre Research Centre, which found that Australians suffering from chronic pain felt more relief from cannabis than conventional medicines. Additional studies have shown medicinal marijuana to be significantly safer than traditional opioid-based painkillers, which are associated with addiction and overdose.
What is missing from the bill?
According to Greens leader Richard Di Natale, although the law is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to clear the confusion surrounding the use of medicinal cannabis.
“Ironically, medicinal cannabis is still an illegal drug,” Di Natale told media. “[The bill] doesn’t do anything about the distribution, supply, prescription of the drug… there’s no legislation around how doctors will prescribe it.”
Di Natale, whose own medicinal cannabis bill was pulled last year, said his party would wait to see how the bill works in action, but reserved the right to reintroduce his legislation if progress was too slow.
The Greens bill, which had won approval from a cross-party legislative committee, would establish a new Commonwealth body, the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis, with responsibility for regulating the production, transport, storage and usage of cannabis products for medicinal purposes.
What does this mean for recreational cannabis users?
Very little. Although several international governments have decriminalised or legalised the use of recreational cannabis, it still seems that this will occur here in the foreseeable future.
On announcing the amendments, Minister Ley made the Government’s position on recreational cannabis clear: “This is not a debate about legalisation of cannabis. This is not about drugs. This is not a product you smoke. This has nothing to do with that.”
However, there is growing parliamentary support for the general legalisation of cannabis in Australia. During the debate Senator David Leyonhjelm argued that:
“Legalising recreational cannabis use would deprive organised crime, whether Middle Eastern crime gangs, Asian triads, bikie gangs or relatives of Darth Vader, of a major source of income, and relieve police of the cost of finding and destroying illicit crops. Of the $1.5 billion spent annually on drug law enforcement, 70% is attributable to cannabis. That’s an expense we do not need.”