Queensland doctors will be able to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients from March next year, under new legislation that passed by the state parliament on Wednesday night.
The Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Bill 2016 – which passed unanimously – establishes laws described as the most flexible in the country.
Accessing medicinal cannabis
Under the new laws, patients can access cannabis in two ways.
Specialist doctors, such as oncologists and paediatric neurologists can prescribe medical marijuana to patients directly, without the need for additional approval from Queensland Health.
Other doctors, including GPs, will be able to prescribe the medicine with certain conditions after applying to the health department for permission.
“Ground breaking” laws
Queensland health minister Cameron Dick said the bill will change “the paradigm for seriously ill patients” who are currently forced to obtain cannabis products illegally.
The minster said the legislation provides access to “both synthetic and botanically derived” medicinal cannabis.
Mr Dick said patients can access the drugs prior to the enactment of the new laws in March, under changes made to the Health (Drugs and Poisons) Regulation last year.
Currently, one patient in Queensland is legally using medicinal cannabis – a teenager from the Brisbane suburb of Loganholme was given approval earlier this year to treat a brain tumour.
No local supply
However, no medicinal cannabis products are currently produced legally in Queensland, and civil libertarians are calling for a local industry to be established.
Michael Cope, spokesperson for the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, told the ABC that medical marijuana products are only manufactured in a few overseas countries. He said the products are extremely difficult to obtain and very expensive.
Criticism of the legislation
But some medicinal cannabis advocates are critical of the reforms.
Deb Lynch, secretary of the Medical Cannabis Users Association of Australia (M.C.U.A), told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® that while the legislation is a good first step, “it doesn’t go far enough.”
According to Ms Lynch, the application process for doctors who want to prescribe the medicine is so rigorous that few will be approved.
Doctors who apply will have to prove they have a thorough knowledge of medical marijuana treatments. Doctors will also need to be available for follow up visits three months after the initial consultation to provide a report on the patient and the medicine.
This situation will lead to private patients being able to find a doctor who can supply the medication, while public patients will have a lot of difficulty obtaining the drugs.
“They’re just going to drive patients underground again, to either home grow and risk prosecution themselves or to the black market,” Ms Lynch said, adding there needs to be an amnesty for current patients.
The application process also places full responsibility onto doctors for any side effects resulting from cannabis medications.
While Ms Lynch thinks this is a good idea, she questions why the government is specifically isolating cannabis for such stringent regulations and not all pharmaceutical drugs.
Current producers of medical marijuana
And as for those who are illegally producing medicinal marijuana products for patients currently using it, the new legislation could mean an end to business, or worse.
“They could end up in gaol for decades, myself included, because I actually make ointments I send to other scleroderma patients,” said Ms Lynch, who suffers from scleroderma herself. “So I risk going to gaol for 15 to 20 years for helping others.”
Queensland’s medicinal cannabis trials
As of July this year, parents of children with severe drug-resistant epilepsy in Queensland have been able to register for medicinal cannabis trials that are set to begin before the end of the year.
A research team from Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane will lead the trials, which will involve the use of Epidiolex – a liquid form of pure cannabidiol (CBD) – produced by UK-based pharmaceutical company GW Pharmaceuticals.
Ms Lynch questions why the trials are limited to just one form of medicinal cannabis, as “CBD medicines overseas haven’t been as successful as the ones we are getting here now illegally.”
CBD is one of 113 active cannabinoids contained in the cannabis plant, all of which act on receptors in the brain.
Children suffering severe seizures need access to other cannabinoids, such as THCA, CBN and THC, Ms Lynch believes. “They’re seizing and they’re just not stopping,” she said. “It’s the THC that’s actually bringing them out of it.”
Medical marijuana developments around Australia
Marijuana reform is not just isolated to Queensland – it’s been a big year for the plant across Australia.
In February this year, federal parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 allowing for the legal cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana.
A national regulatory body will be established to oversee the market that will provide medicinal cannabis to patients with a valid prescription.
Victoria was the first state to legalise medicinal cannabis in April.
The Victorian Access to Medicinal Cannabis Act 2016 allows for the manufacture, supply and access to medical marijuana, but it will be restricted to children suffering severe epilepsy for the time being.
The Tasmanian state government announced in April that specialist doctors would be able to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients with chronic illnesses starting next year.
However on Tuesday, Tasmanian parliament voted down a Greens’ motion to establish a register of medicinal cannabis users who would be quarantined from persecution prior to the establishment of the state’s Controlled Access Scheme.
In NSW, doctors have been able to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients with a range conditions since August 1.
Under amendments to the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods regulations, patients who have exhausted other standard treatment options for illnesses – such as arthritis, epilepsy and schizophrenia – can access the medicine if they receive approval from a NSW Health panel of experts.
And on August 31, the Therapeutic Goods Administration published their formal decision that legalises the medicinal use of the plant as of November this year.