This article explains our frustrations with Australia's cannabis laws. These frustrations prompted our latest documentary, Stealthcare, but here we'll examine current regulation in more detail.
In February 2016, when the Australian Government passed a law regulating the cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis, long-fighting advocates welcomed the beginning of an exciting new world. The hope was that everyone from epileptic kids to cancer patients going through chemotherapy could easily access cannabis products to manage their symptoms without fear of violating some cultural taboo.
So things started well but problems quickly emerged.
In the course of trying to help their patients, many doctors realised the big issue was that Australia doesn't have any established, certified industry to grow, manufacture, and distribute legit, pharmaceutical-grade weed. As a result, people have looked to the black market or to overseas sellers, which remained illegal until February 2017 when another law was passed.
According to Australian Medical Association (AMA) vice president Tony Bartone, regulators have been taking a “slow and steady” approach to medicinal cannabis ever since the law was passed.
“You need to be sure,” Bartone told VICE. “It takes time. It’s a detailed and complex process. It’s not as simple as introducing a bill and voting it in the house and enacting it and supplying. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is one of the safest and strongest and most robust regulatory regimes in the world. It is working flat chat to ensure that Australians will have a reliable and safe supply.”
This is a fair idea. But, in practice, patients and their doctors say the process of obtaining medical-grade cannabis is a slow grind of hellish bureaucratic procedures and regulatory limbos.
Generally, there are two ways a doctor can legally prescribe medicinal cannabis in Australia. The first is for a doctor to become an Authorised Prescriber
, which allows them to write prescriptions for a specific product without seeking approval. This is generally not the domain of your local GP, but of high level specialists who regularly deal with patients suffering conditions that are known to benefit from cannabis products.
The second is a notification or approval scheme which works on a case-by-case basis through a system run by the TGA called the "Special Access Scheme." This is a way to bring new medicines into Australia, without having to rely on a local supplier.
Under this scheme, Category A is for patients who have a terminal illness or might die without said medicine. Those in this category don’t need to get permission, they just need their doctor to fill out a notification form within 28 days of writing the prescription.
But most applications for medical cannabis products fall under Category B—an access scheme for an unapproved drug in any patient category, which requires prior approval from the TGA. And this is where things get messy.
As there's no industry in Australia capable of producing these products in volume, most patients and their doctors have to look overseas to find a supply. And each application to import cannabis-based medicine needs its own licence and permit applications. Even if a supplier can be found, and approved, doctors have to navigate a minefield of local, state, and territory laws.
Generally speaking, cannabis is illegal everywhere in Australia. But then each state and territory has its own system for handling cannabis and cannabis-related substances. This creates a mosaic of regulations across the country, which define what counts as criminal possession, production, and sale—and what may be permissible for personal or medicinal use. Everyone involved in the primary production, manufacture, sale, or prescription of medicinal cannabis products needs some kind of licence, permit, or authorisation. As a result, every state is different and so are their problems.
For example, South Australia, which already takes a relaxed attitude towards possession charges, allows doctors to prescribe a medical cannabis product for up to two months without any official approval. The only catch is that most doctors are forced to import from overseas, where prices are high and they are forced to make an application under Category B. In at least one case, a single bottle was said to cost $875.
In Victoria, children with epilepsy are considered a special group where access to medicinal cannabis products is always allowed. Everyone else has to show "exceptional circumstances." VICE contacted the Victorian government to ask about state's regulatory framework, but we were redirected to the press releases on the media section of its website. And that's the key takeaway here—when it comes to medical cannabis in Australia, getting any sort of straight answer is really tricky.
For a journalist, this is frustrating. For patients, it can be life or death.
Medical cannabis may be officially legal, but it's still almost impossible to access. According to the TGA, as of November 28, 2017 only 242 applications for medicinal cannabis had been approved under Special Access Scheme Category B, which includes 29 Victorian children. Meanwhile, only 29 doctors around the country have been approved under the Authorised Prescriber Scheme, allowing them to write prescriptions without seeking permission each time.
To date, these doctors have prescribed medicinal cannabis products to just 101 patients. Facing the prospect of long wait times, long application processes, and fed up with the “slow and steady” process among regulators, desperate patients—and their families—are now trying to cut out the middleman. For better or worse, many are turning to an unregulated black market of manufacturers to meet the demand.
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