While the passing of the Narcotic Drugs Amendment 2016 has legalized the cultivation and distribution of marijuana in Australia, there's still a long way to go before patients get access to pharmaceutical cannabinoids.
Troy Langman, CEO of medical marijuana lobby United in Compassion, told VICE that marijuana products are still probably a year from shops. The next six months will be spent drafting regulations to spell out how licensing will operate, along with production, security requirements, and distribution.
The first of these—licensing—is particularly complex. At the moment, it looks as though there will be two types of licenses: one for commercial growers, and another for researchers.
On the commercial side, interest from both local and international companies is fueling a speculative "medical marijuana boom." It's likely there will be separate licenses for growing the cannabis and producing the actual medication.
Some medical marijuana advocates are concerned the regulations may restrict what strains of cannabis can be grown, potentially limiting how many people can be aided. There are also questions around whether the government will allow plants to be grown outdoors, or if they will be restricted to cultivation in greenhouses. If companies are growing indoors, they may have their first crop within nine weeks of planting.
Once the cannabis is grown and processed into medication, it can be given to patients. Well, sort of. As the legalization amendment states, "manufacturing can begin once a medicinal formulation of cannabis is identified."
This "medicinal formulation" is currently under development at the University of Sydney, where a $33.7 million [$24 million USD] donation (the largest ever in Australia) is funding studies into the treatment of severe epilepsy, palliative pain, and nausea associated with chemotherapy. Childhood epilepsy research will also soon launch at the University of Melbourne; however, the study will only use synthetic cannabis.
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The federal government has also promised to down-schedule medical marijuana to a "controlled drug." However, each individual state reserves the right to maintain its status as "restricted." In New South Wales, a compassionate access scheme for children with severe epilepsy using the cannabis-based drug Epidolex is set to start in March.
If you've wondered how in Australia—a country still squabbling over marriage equality—allowed this relatively progressive policy to pass so quickly (the amendment was written in just eight weeks), United in Compassion's founder Lucy Haslam is a good place to start.
Haslam became an unlikely campaigner for medical marijuana after her 20-year-old son Daniel was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. Lucy's descriptions of the relief marijuana brought Daniel, easing his extreme nausea after chemotherapy, even won over conservative radio shock jock Alan Jones. NSW's Liberal Premier Mike Baird spoke at Daniel's memorial. Exactly a year after Daniel died, the amendment to narcotics legislation was passed.
"Lucy, this wouldn't have happened without your contribution," Greens leader Richard Di Natale said as he addressed the Australian Parliament. "Your family's grief, your family's pain and suffering, has not been in vain." It's hoped the broad public and political support for medical marijuana will expedite the process of getting the product to patients. Or at least see an amnesty announced on imported medical cannabis treatment until Australian-grown marijuana is available.
However, Australia is in a precarious position. As anyone who had the pleasure to watch the four-hour Senate debate on narcotics reform would've noticed, almost every politician who spoke was at pains to mention that Australia's legalization of medical marijuana is in line with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961. As the bill itself clearly states, "It is important to note that the Bill does not legalize the cultivation of cannabis or use of cannabis outside of regulated medical purposes."
This is largely driven by Tasmania's poppy industry, which grows around half of the world's opiates and is tightly monitored by the UN. Any regulation around medical marijuana must be carefully constructed to ensure it doesn't jeopardize this industry.
This could also mean the full legalization of marijuana may be a long way off. However, decriminalization will be on the table on March 2, when the National Drug Summit convenes in Canberra. The Greens have been pushing decriminalization in the past few months, an approach that may combat the fact that the number of illicit drug offenses has been rising in Australia since 2008.
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