The Australian government has passed new national laws to permit the use of medicinal cannabis by people with painful and chronic illnesses. The amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act will allow cannabis to be legally grown for medicinal purposes without repercussion from the law. Here’s everything patients and potheads need to know.
Marijuana image from Shutterstock
Who’s doing what now?
The Narcotic Drugs Act was amended in parliament today to permit the legal cultivation of cannabis for the manufacture of medicinal cannabis products in Australia. The Amendment Bill essentially allows licensing and permit schemes to be established for the cultivation and production of cannabis and cannabis resin for medicinal and scientific purposes.
The Commonwealth currently has laws that permit the importation of raw cannabis material into Australia for medicinal purposes but cultivation of the plant wasn’t allowed. As the Bill explains:
“The manufacturing provisions in the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 are considered inadequate to properly manage the risks associated with the potential for diversion of medicinal cannabis products and other narcotic drugs.”
Gnarly. How’s it going to work?
The cultivation, production and manufacturing process will be regulated by a state or territory government agency. There’s no change to Australia’s strict international obligations to drug safety, which means the process will be tightly controlled. As explained in the Bill:
“As a signatory to the Single Convention, Australia agrees that the licit use of narcotic drugs must be tightly regulated to ensure that public health is protected from the risks of diversion into illicit markets.”
Additionally, the Secretary of the Department of Health will have the power to order the destruction of cannabis produced by a licence holder. This allows the Secretary to control the level of production and prevent unnecessary accumulation.
Licence holders will also need to ensure crops are carefully secured and accounted for so as not to be diverted to illicit uses. Substantial penalties will apply for breaches of conditions and for undertaking unauthorised activities.
There will be two cannabis licences: one that authorises the cultivation of cannabis for manufacture into medicinal cannabis products, and another that authorises research into the cannabis plant that is to be used for medicinal purposes. (For example, testing growing conditions, cannabinoid yields from different strains and ensuring consistency in yields.)
The drug will be manufactured in multiple forms: for example, NSW is currently in the process of trialing the cannabis-based drug Epidolex which is geared towards children with epilepsy. Meanwhile, Perth-based medical business MGC Pharmaceuticals is working with the University of Sydney to develop a federal government white paper on creating a medical cannabis industry.
Naturally, recreational cannabis cultivation and use will remain illegal. State-based criminal laws remain unchanged.
Bummer. How do you get the pot?
It’s “medical marijuana”. Under the new federal scheme, patients with a valid prescription can possess and use medicinal cannabis products manufactured from cannabis legally cultivated in Australia, provided the supply has been authorised under the Therapeutic Goods Act and relevant state and territory legislation. The prescription process is basically no different to other sometimes-illicit medicinal drugs such as morphine.
Who’s paying for all this?
The Government anticipates that there will be costs involved in the regulation of the cultivation licensing scheme, ranging from administration of licence applications and site inspections to “sampling and testing”. The Government has proposed that these be funded from a cost-recovery scheme “consistent with the Commonwealth’s cost-recovery guidelines.”
They’re gonna need someone to grow this stuff, right? Can I get in on that?
Probably not. As outlined in the Bill, all applicants must complete a strict ‘fit and proper person’ test that will cover such matters as criminal history, connections, associates and family, financial status, business history and capacity to comply with licensing requirements:
“This test is explicitly designed to ensure the exclusion of criminal elements, including organised crime, which may be tempted to use the licence scheme as cover for illegal activities.”
In other words, dudes with pre-existing backyard hydroponic setups are out of luck.
What are we talking about again? I’m hungry.
Additional reporting by Simon Thomsen.
Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 [Parliament of Australia]