After years of stalled debate, Australia is on the cusp of legalising medicinal cannabis. On October 17 the federal government announced plans to legalise weed for sufferers of chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. If passed the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill 2014 will establish a body to govern the licensing of production, manufacture, and supply of medical marijuana.
This came days after the Victorian government announced cultivation and processing would happen locally, with cannabis products hitting the market in 2017. NSW doesn't have such firm plans, but in July they announced clinical trials would begin early next year.
This is all good news for people who need pain relief, but no one has really mentioned the fact that a handful of guys already sell medicinal marijuana, albeit illegally. We were curious how the more grassroots characters would fare under new legislation, so we reached out.
Hempy has been growing pot in South Australia for the past thirty years. He produces oil extracts to treat cancer patients and doesn't grow for profit. Over the years he thinks he's supplied medicine to around a thousand people and is currently helping about a quarter of that number.
A regulatory body is fine, according to Hempy, but he does have two concerns about how it will be run. The first is that he's worried growers such as himself will be denied cultivation licenses because of their criminal records, even though their crime is no longer illegal. "Most really good growers have been busted at least once," he said. "So if they're going to decriminalise it, they have to remove all of those records."
His other concern is that a legal industry will churn out single or dual compound pharmaceuticals, rather than those that utilise the whole plant. "I've seen the effects of single compound products versus whole plant products and whole plant—that's the only way it works really," he explained. He pointed to Marinol, which is a synthetic form of THC, and says that as a single compound product it doesn't really work. Regardless, it's been available for legal importation into Australia under special circumstances since the mid-1990s.
Tony Bower is the director of Mullaways Medical Cannabis. This federally registered company produces a non-psychotropic marijuana tincture for sufferers of cancer and epilepsy, among other things. He gives away his products without charge and at present is helping around 130 families, most of whom have children suffering seizures due to Dravet syndrome.
Tony Bower plans to apply for a licence and is confident he'll get one. But he does share Hempy's concerns about which products will be manufactured.
In October the NSW government announced funding of $3.5 million for medicinal cannabis trials to be held in conjunction with UK-based GW Pharmaceuticals. Due to start early next year, the trials will use products containing cannabidiol and cannabidivarin but Bower is concerned, "people have bad results" with these treatments. As he explains, "they're only produced in plants that are grown for fibre. They're not produced in the plant that people use for medicine," he said, adding, "Because they can do it in a lab, it's easy for them to go with the drug companies."
Bower also questions why these trials are necessary at all, as literally dozens of trials have already happened in the US, Canada, Europe and Israel. He pointed out that Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, cited a journal review that identified 82 favourable controlled trials, while only nine returned anything unfavourable.
Dr Wodak admitted to VICE that he can see an argument for local research but "the more urgent priority is starting the lawful availability of regulated medicinal cannabis."
According to Bower it's this urgency that will limit the effectiveness of trials. "Some of these kids will be getting a placebo for two years," he explained. "The parents won't stay on the trials. They'll just go and get it somewhere else."
The federal bill, along with amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967, will go before parliament early next year. If enacted Australia will get the go-ahead for cannabis cultivation, but in a very slow, careful way.
As an Australian Department of Health spokesperson explained to VICE, products will be supplied to clinical trials and prescribed to specific patients. "The government recognises that enabling a safe, legal, and sustainable Australian supply of cannabis is an important part of providing medicinal cannabis," he said. On top of this products will undergo strict manufacturing processes to ensure "standardised dosage, quality and efficacy."
As to whether backyard operations such as Tony's will be issued licenses, the spokesperson assured applicants "will be fairly assessed and treated equally." However he insisted on adding "any current involvement with the cultivation and production of medicinal cannabis is considered an illegal activity."
When asked what he'd do if he were denied a grower's licence, Hempy remains defiant. "I'll keep doing what I'm doing regardless of the law," he said. "I'm good at what I do and people suffer if I'm not allowed to do it. I'm not going to stop if they tell me to."
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