This week the federal government granted its first license for an Australian company to grow and harvest medical marijuana.
This follows Australia’s amending of the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 to legalise the production and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The amendment came in February 2016, a year after the death of campaigner Daniel Haslam.
Daniel suffered distressing side effects of chemotherapy, some of which were ameliorated by cannabis. While these changes sound promising for sufferers like Daniel, if he were alive today, he would still not be able to lawfully obtain medicinal cannabis.
Despite the media attention, extensive political and medical commentary on the subject, and the fact that more than two thirds of Australians have supported medicinal cannabis for many years, a patient with a clear cut and widely accepted case for being able to use lawful medicinal cannabis would still be unable to.
So far, only a few patients have been able to obtain lawful medicinal cannabis, and only after a long and difficult struggle.
Why is it taking so long?
There are a number of factors slowing down the availability of lawful medicinal cannabis in Australia.
With a multitude of natural chemical constituents, some of which are psychoactive – meaning mood, thinking and perception may be altered, perhaps pleasurably – cannabis is more complicated than most other pharmaceutical products. Cannabis can be used by way of a number of botanical products as well as partially purified or synthetic pharmaceutical preparations.
Much research is being invested in determining the components to treat particular medical conditions. For example, a widely studied cannabis plant extract has been used to treat pain resulting from nerve damage.
Since the mid 20th century, western medicine has preferred highly purified extracts of plants or synthetic products to provide greater certainty about effectiveness, side effects and dose.
Plant-based drugs containing mixtures of constituents such as Omnopon, a painkiller derived from opium, and digoxin, a heart medication derived from the foxglove plant, were regulated and successfully used in western medicine from the 19th century until a generation ago when more purified preparations became readily available.
A political decision was made in 2016 that medicinal cannabis would be regulated through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the section of the Australian Government Department of Health that oversees the regulation of drugs.
Although this may seem an intuitive decision, medicinal cannabis is very different from the usual drugs, such as antibiotics and diuretics, that the TGA has an excellent reputation for regulating. Because of its difference, some countries wisely created a separate Office of Medicinal Cannabis to regulate this drug.
By allocating medicinal cannabis to the TGA, the system is now skewed to an inappropriate, rigid and narrow approach that is also slow moving.