The wait is over: medical marijuana just became legal in Australia.
On October 30, cannabis law in Australia took a giant step forward with the enactment of the Narcotics Drugs Amendment Act 2016. The law allows individuals and organizations to apply for a license to legally grow marijuana for medical and scientific purposes.
In a statement, Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley pointed out the difficulty that many Australians have experienced in acquiring medical cannabis from sources overseas. The intention in the change of law, she said, was to provide a domestic supply of cannabis for medical users. Tourists and residents should be aware that the law has not fully legalized marijuana in Australia, however, and Ley stressed that “the changes to the Narcotics Drugs Act do not decriminalize cannabis for recreational use.”
How the Law Works
Each state and territory will create its own legislation around who is allowed access to medical cannabis. They must do this while keeping in mind an international law known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, which specifies how medical marijuana should be handled. Certain states (Queensland, for example) will allow cannabis use for people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, epilepsy and HIV/AIDS. Other states such as Victoria will restrict it to children with uncontrolled epilepsy. In order to be considered legal, all cannabis products must be dispensed through a licensed pharmacist.
For people wishing to quietly grow a few medicinal plants in their backyard, the law creates a roadblock. Potential licensees will have to prove that they will be growing cannabis in a secure site and that they will be supplying a medical researcher or licensed medical cannabis manufacturer. Applicants have three license options: a grower license or two categories of researcher licenses.
In other words, only commercial growers or those supplying researchers will be allowed. Anyone wishing to receive a license will have to apply through Australia’s Office of Drug Control. The law stipulates that there will be “strict fit and proper persons requirements and other legislative tests relating to security.” This all adds up to disappointment for anyone who was hoping to have a small cannabis farm for private medical purposes.
Advocates Have Fears
While the law is good news for patients who have been getting black market medical marijuana, there are still concerns. Medical cannabis advocates and patients in Australia point out the overall lack of research and education that has occurred before the push for medicinal legalization in the country. They worry that lacking good information and clinical studies about cannabis, many doctors may be hesitant to prescribe it to their patients, preventing them from access to treatment that could potentially provide huge relief to a variety of conditions.
Adding to this is the overall stigma that still exists around marijuana. Patients frequently have to deal with stereotyping from friends and family members who assume that they are lazing around happily stoned all the time. These patients insist that more education is needed so that the public – and even medical professionals – become aware of how different types of cannabis and its extracts work and that medical marijuana doesn’t always mean getting high.
Doctors’ fears will hopefully be allayed as the new law opens up ways for the drug to be further researched. It has paved the way for large companies who seek to provide cannabis for clinical trials, as well as providing much-needed product to prescribing clinicians. One of these companies, AusCann, is working hard to be able to supply products to clinical studies and doctors in just over a year. Their focus is on patients with chronic neuropathic pain and epilepsy that has been resistant to other forms of treatment. The new law provides them with an effective way to assist these patients – likely via cannabis oil vaporizers and sublingual drops.
Legal access to a controlled and consistent supply of cannabis will kick off a slew of new research studies, providing evidence and information that doctors need to make confident decisions about their patients’ care. As more patients gain access to safe and legal medical marijuana, education about the forms of the drug and its many uses will no doubt spread. While legal growing and production begins amidst cheers and fears, it remains to be seen how quickly attitudes about cannabis will change within the medical community and Australian society as a whole.