BY ANDREW BARCLAY
Medical marijuana could be available by prescription in Australia by 2017 due to landmark legislation that provides the “missing piece”, yet the announcement has been met with caution by campaigners and the industry who say access may still be “years away”.
Prominent medical marijuana businessperson Paul Benhaim told City Hub he was wary of the announced legislation because it doesn’t enable patients to legally consume the product.
“With this new proposed legislation, in reality we are no closer to where we want to be, and that’s here in Australia,” he said.
“While the new legislation allows for cultivation of medical grade cannabis under a Federal controlled licensing system, it will be left up to the States to decide how the product will be consumed, if at all.”
The draft legislation, announced last week by Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley, would allow the controlled cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes through a national licensing scheme.
She said Australia does not currently have a legal or reliable supply of locally-grown cannabis and the legislation would allow for this.
“I am confident creating one single, nationally-consistent cultivation scheme, rather than eight individual arrangements, will not only help speed up the legislative and regulatory process, but ultimately access to medicinal cannabis products as well,” she said in a statement.
“For Australia, this is the missing piece in a patient’s journey.”
The announcement comes at a busy time for the medical cannabis industry in Australia after NSW announced a state-based scheme for terminally ill patients and a recent move to allow a small number of children with drug-resistant epilepsy to access a new cannabis-based drug, named Epidolex.
Queensland also recently joined clinical trials and the premier of Tasmania Will Hodgman said cannabis should be cultivated in his own state.
Reacting to the legislation, Professor Jan Copeland from the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) told City Hub she wouldn’t comment on specific legislation, yet that she strongly supports ongoing high-quality research, regardless of the legal status of cannabis.
She said that based on available evidence, NCPIC supports a “single national provider of cannabis for pharmaceutical use in medications approved by the TGA”.
“It is important for national control to be in place to ensure lobbyists and entrepreneurs do not influence governments to act outside the current drug safety protections as seen in North America.”
Yet, other experts said that the approach by state governments of using clinical trials is confusing and a delaying tactic.
David Pennington, Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne said upcoming trials in New South Wales presume cannabis can be regulated as a pharmaceutical substance, which he said it can’t be given its unique properties.
“The debate about the medical use of cannabis in Australia has become confused with the proposal for a formal clinical trial instead of proceeding to legislation in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria,” he recently wrote.
Australian Greens Leader Dr Richard Di Natale said he too was cautious of the legislation, warning that it falls short of delivering for patients.
He said the legislation meant barriers remained between patients and medicinal cannabis because it was still illegal.
“The Health Minister has labelled its medicinal cannabis legislation the ‘missing piece’ when it is really just the first piece of the puzzle,” said Senator Di Natale.
“This bill does nothing to change the fact that cannabis is scheduled as an illegal drug that cannot be prescribed by a doctor.”
For his part, medical marijuana entrepreneur Paul Benhaim said Australia should pursue an approach similar to that of Colorado, which sees customers receive a ‘medical cannabis card’ for certain ailments.
Recreational use of cannabis will remain illegal under the draft legislation. The House of Representatives and Senate are expected to approve the proposed amendments. Minister Ley has said she wants the laws passed before parliament breaks in March.
Multiple surveys have shown a majority of the Australia population supports the use of medical cannabis. This latest development comes as medical marijuana continues to gain ground globally with 13 nations across the European Union, four nations in Latin America, Canada and a host of US states already have already passed legislation allowing its use.