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Is Medicinal Marijuana Finally Coming to Australia?

It looks like the country is finally going to soften its unusually harsh cannabis laws, but skeptics say that the government is moving too slowly and will repeat the mistakes other nations have made.

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After the last week, the legalization of medical marijuana in Australia seems inevitable, although the timeframe and specific path of its implementation remains to be seen. A turning point for many was when a letter by Prime Minister Tony Abbott supporting legal medical marijuana was read aloud by radio presenter Alan Jones on September 17. Jones, a stalwart conservative, has been supporting the pro–medical marijuana campaign run by Lucy Haslam, the mother of a 24-year-old who’s been using cannabis to relieve the nausea associated with his chemotherapy. (Marijuana laws vary across Australia, but it remains completely illegal in many parts of the country.)

At the state government level, there’s been talk of easing restrictions on marijuana. New South Wales (NSW) Premier Mike Baird announced on September 16 that his state will allow terminally ill patients to use pot; that same day the Victorian parliament introduced legislation that would make it easier to study medical marijuana. The day before, West Australian health minister Kim Hames spoke out in favor of legal medical pot, and Tasmania is considering trials as well. Finally, over the last two days a public forum was held in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which saw member of parliament Shane Rattenbury calling on the government to regulate the drug.

But Abbott disagrees with this state government solution, saying in his letter, “My basic contention is that something that’s been found to be safe in a reliable jurisdiction shouldn’t need to be tested here again. And clinical trials that have been done elsewhere shouldn’t have to be repeated here.”

Monique Brand is a retired financial sector professional who’s been using medical marijuana for about 17 years. She’s had most of her bowel removed, along with parts of her small intestines. She also suffers from chronic emphysema. “Without medicinal cannabis it was one of two things for me: I'd either be dead or I'd be an opiate addict,” she said. “The emphysema is something that the medicine really does help with. It calms airways and I'm finding that I'm actually getting restored lung function. I don't have a large bowel and most people do the bulk of their absorption through there, so for me, even though I've got emphysema, smoking or vaping is the best method... If marijuana therapy does nothing else for you, when you smoke marijuana you don't tend to worry about anything as much, including pain.”

Brand is in favor of national reform and agrees with Abbott in that she thinks there shouldn't have to be more studies. “Why are we doing trials? That is like reinventing the wheel. There's many people out there that have already tried it and like myself, are happy to report.”

According to Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, the trials will just make the process of actually legalization pot that much slower. He says that over a hundred controlled trials have already been carried out around the globe, citing a recent study that identified 82 favorable controlled trials and only nine unfavorable ones. Wodak thinks treatment should be available for people who have medical conditions that conventional medicines haven’t been successful in treating, but also thinks there is a need for trials in areas that haven’t been thoroughly researched, such as the use of medical marijuana in treating childhood epilepsy.

“The authorities will grudgingly allow the minimum that they think they can get away with—that is a very limited range of conditions," Wodak predicts. "They’re reluctant to allow high-quality botanical leaf cannabis to be used. They're doing everything they can to avoid that. So this debate is going to go on for some years to come. I don't think it's going to be over immediately, by any means.”

Tony Bower, director of Mullaways Medical Cannabis, produces a non-psychotropic marijuana tincture. His products, which he doesn’t sell but rather gives away, are used to treat cancer and epilepsy patients as well as children with Dravet Syndrome. He’s currently appealing a 12-month prison sentence for the cultivation of the cannabis he grows to produce his medicinal products.

“At first I thought they were just words,” Bower said of Abbott’s statement, “but I've actually been in contact with a few ministers since then and it's more than words. It’s actually going to help a lot.” 

The Poisons Standard is a national document that groups medicines and poisons into schedules. Cannabis is classified as schedule 9, the most restrictive category, which means it's deemed to have no medical use and therefore cannot be prescribed by a doctor. As in some other countries, drugs like cocaine and morphine are considered to have enough value to be prescribed. Bower says that this is a major hurdle to legalizing medical marijuana; if cannabis is reclassified, it will make state government research and trials easier.

A spokesperson from the office of NSW Premier Mike Baird informed VICE that the state’s clinical trial would go ahead, with a working group set to undertake the trial and report back by the end of the year.

NSW MP John Kaye thinks that the trials are unnecessary and inappropriate, as it’s difficult to evaluate the pain efficacy of cannabis in a clinical setting. He points out that the United States and Holland have already found that the drug works extremely well for people suffering intractable pains and nausea as well as loss of appetite.

“Crude cannabis is used extensively recreationally and for self-medication," Kaye said. "By making it legal we'll be able to help people with far higher quality health advice and we'll be able to make sure that people don't have to make awful choices about breaking the law or going without the relief from some of their symptoms.”

Baird also announced that police would have discretion not to charge terminally ill adults found using cannabis. But for Kaye this fails to protect these people from prosecution and basically puts what is a medical decision in the hands of the police. Premier Baird, he said, "has failed to recognize that the world is moving on from the prohibitionist views that have held back medicinal cannabis for the past 30 years.”

Jim Moylan, lawyer and national campaign director of the HEMP party, explains that medicine and policing are state concerns in Australia. So he sees Abbott’s statement as directed not toward the public, but toward the Liberal state premiers throughout the country, providing them with a green light to move forward with medical marijuana. He said the most favorable proposal was that of Rattenbury in the ACT because it allows for personal cannabis growing licenses, which addresses the issue of supply.

Moylan believes that the road to the legalization of medical marijuana in Australia will see the country repeating many mistakes that have already made in similar jurisdictions overseas.

“We're presented with a golden opportunity in Australia to learn from this, but we're not going to. We'll career along an eight-year path of legislation and re-legislation, blindly ignoring 25 years of experience throughout America.”  

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