by Miranda on 07/03/2016 | Legal & Politics Medicinal

Australia on the Verge of Legalising Medicinal Cannabis

Australia Australia is set to legalise the cultivation of medicinal cannabis throughout the country. Last Wednesday (10 February), the government introduced a draft bill to Parliament to create a national legislative framework allowing the cultivation of medicinal cannabis, for approval at the end of March. Read more.


The federal government of Australia introduced a draft bill to Parliament on Wednesday 10 February 2016, with the aim of legalising the cultivation of cannabis for therapeutic and scientific purposes. The government described the bill as the “the missing piece in a patient’s journey.”

The aim of this legislation is to establish a national plan for the cultivation and use of cannabis that will pave the way for patients suffering from painful, chronic and terminal illnesses to be able to access medicinal cannabis.

The amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 will not only allow the cultivation of cannabis through a national licensing and permit system that will supply cannabis to said patients, solely through a medical prescription, but also the performance of clinical trials.

The government's intent is to legalise the cultivation of cannabis for therapeutic and scientific purposes (CC. Rusty Blazenhoff)
The government’s intent is to legalise the cultivation of cannabis for therapeutic and scientific purposes (CC. Rusty Blazenhoff)

Minister for Health Sussan Ley stated that should the law be passed, for the first time the door will be opening to a safe, legal and sustainable supply of medicinal cannabis products produced at a local level.

“This is an important day for Australia and the many advocates who have fought long and hard to challenge the stigma around medicinal cannabis products,” said Ley.

However, the Minister publicly rejected the idea that this law being approved in any way increases the likelihood of legalising cannabis for recreational use. For the time being, the government’s plans do not include decriminalising the substance, either for personal cultivation or recreational consumption.

Support of the Australian Parliament for medical cannabis

The Minister expressed her confidence  that this bill would be passed at the end of March, since the main opposition parties, both the Labour Party and the Greens – who last year criticised the government for its lack of action when it came to establishing a framework for cannabis cultivation – promised to give their immediate support, and have done so publicly.

This government understands that there are some Australians suffering from severe conditions for which cannabis may have applications and we want to enable access to the most effective medical treatments available,” Ms. Lay explained in Parliament.

The government’s health representative expects the two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate, to approve the new legislation in this session, although as she recognised in number of statements to ABC, the bill is highly complex and has to take into account a slew of state and territorial policies. For this reason, the bill was developed in close collaboration with the different states and territories.

We have to ensure that we have consulted the police authorities, that the integrity of system and those using it is protected, and that this allows states that are ready and waiting to go forward with this matter,” she said.

The Minister explained in a communication that the government is certain that creating a single and coherent cultivation programme on a national level, instead of eight individual agreements, will not only help speed up the legislative and policy processes, but furthermore will ultimately facilitate access to medical cannabis products.

On the left, Australian Minister for Health Sussan Ley. (CC. Lock the Gate Alliance)
On the left, Australian Minister for Health Sussan Ley. (CC. Lock the Gate Alliance)

“If states wish to decriminalise cannabis, then that’s entirely a matter for them,” said Ms. Ley.

In a report by the Budget Office of the Australian Parliament, it is calculated that if the production of cannabis and hemp for recreational and medicinal purposes is legalised in 2017, it could mean a considerable sum of tax revenues in the next two years, i.e. around USD 460 million.

Medicinal cannabis only for patients and clinical trials

Support for medicinal cannabis for patients with chronic or terminal illnesses has been growing in recent years, and the debate in favour of legalising medicinal cannabis in Australia has been a pressing theme for many months now.

This new legislation follows in the footsteps taken by other states such as Victoria and New South Wales, where a small number of children with drug-resistant epilepsy are able to access a new cannabis-based medicine. This new drug, called Epidolex, is still in its trial phase and awaiting fully approval from the authorities.

Due to the current laws prohibiting the cultivation of the plant, the Australian manufacturers, researchers and patients taking part in the clinical trials have been obliged to use international supplies of legal medicinal cannabis. However, the costs of the supply combined with export restrictions make this a real challenge.

The government has stressed that the amendment will not mean Australia will default on its international obligations. The legislation is to guarantee cannabis is only produced and sold for medical and scientific purposes, and thus once the law is passed, it will still be illegal for patients outside the clinical trial and the general public to use cannabis.

Medlab Clinical became the first commercial enterprise to take part in researching medicinal cannabis last year, after having been chosen by the NSW government to carry out research at its laboratory in Sydney.

MMJ Phytotech, a company leading the way in developing methods of administering cannabis, became Australia’s first medicinal cannabis company after presenting itself several times in an initial public tender last year.

“The market for medicinal cannabis in Australia is substantial. The number of patients that could be targeted could be people with epilepsy, Multiple sclerosis, while there is the other spectrum of people with chronic pain,” said Gaelan Bloomfield, manager of MMJ Phytotech Ltd.

Australia continues advancing

The Australian Government is acting in an area where some of the world’s strictest drugs policies can be found. This legislative change will place Australia very far from its neighbours in south-east Asia, who are particularly intolerant to illegal drugs and the vast majority of whom deem cannabis a hard drug. In some of these countries, cannabis can cost you your life.

Australia is in an area that boasts some of the world’s strictest drugs policies and where the death penalty is applied for drugs crimes (CC. eric molina)
Australia is in an area that boasts some of the world’s strictest drugs policies and where the death penalty is applied for drugs crimes (CC. eric molina)

Singapore is known for applying the death penalty in relation to drug crimes, but it is not the only one in the area. According to Amnesty International, last year people were sentenced to death for drug-related crimes in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. China has been taking vigorous measures against celebrities who take drugs, including cannabis. In Indonesia last year, two Australian heroin traffickers were executed by firing squad, despite appeals from Canberra for their lives to be spared. In protest, Australia withdrew its ambassador from Indonesia.

Fortunately, other parts of the world have become more receptive to cannabis and the hemp plant, and are continuing to advance toward legalisation. In Canada and in more than 20 states of the United States, authorities have approved the cultivation of medicinal cannabis. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants his country to become the first country in the G7 to completely legalise cannabis. At the same time, Colombia, Ecuador, the Netherlands, Peru and others have already legalised the possession of small quantities of cannabis. At present, the recreational consumption of cannabis is also allowed in certain states of the US.

As we have already said, there are no official plans to legalise the recreational use of cannabis in Australia for the time being, although the first products for the medicinal use of the plant could be available within a matter of months, which, without a doubt, marks a major advancement.

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