While Australia is increasingly pro-medical cannabis, it’s still hard to get your hands on the stuff if you’re in need (and have a prescription).
The government has indicated it’s open to speeding things up, with Health Minister Greg Hunt announcing Wednesday that authorities will allow more rapid importation of the drug while a domestic supply is built. Medical cannabis is often used to alleviate pain associated with cancer as well as epilepsy.
Importers will now be allowed to buy from “a reputable supplier overseas,” and store it locally to be distributed via doctors approved to supply medicinal cannabis products. The change is intended to counter delays for patients prescribed medicinal cannabis, who currently have to rely on “case by case” imports from overseas.
“We are now making it easier to access medicinal cannabis products more rapidly, while still maintaining strict safeguards for individual and community safety,” Hunt wrote in a Facebook post.
He estimated that “within 8 weeks, possibly sooner” Australia will have a store of imported medicinal cannabis ready to go.
“What this means is that there will be a supply to meet all Australian demand,” Hunt told ABC Radio. “That won’t happen overnight but what we’ve done here is issue a call for people to be able to establish an interim supply for and within Australia through importation.”
Australia is still in the process of building its own domestic stores of the drug after legal changes allowed cultivation under strict controls in 2016. On Monday, the Office of Drug control announced it had granted its first licence to cultivate and research medicinal cannabis.
Dr. Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said the announcement was promising but remained only “the first link in a chain.”
“Is it enough? it clearly isn’t enough,” he said. “We have to try and figure out what the real question is here, and the real question for me is simple: Where it’s agreed that medicinal cannabis can help people, can those people obtain effective, safe and affordable medical cannabis, and can they do that in a timely fashion?”
The federal government took a significant step towards legalisation in February 2016 when it amended the Narcotics Drugs Act. The change created a national licensing scheme for the controlled cultivation of medical cannabis, but access for patients has been stymied by a patchwork of state laws.
The legal approach to medical cannabis varies state by state. While New South Wales has a Medicinal Cannabis Compassionate Use Scheme that allows police the discretion not to prosecute use of the drug by “adults with terminal illness,” Victoria became the first state in Australia to legalise medical cannabis in early 2016.
For Wodak, the approach to cannabis in Australia emphasises law enforcement while still struggling with the notion that the drug can have medicinal purposes.
“Frankly, the Commonwealth, states and territories struggle with this issue, and that’s because they find it difficult, if not impossible, not see this issue as part of the war on drugs,” he said.
He also suggested it would take a change in outlook from the medical profession for medical cannabis to become established.
“We’ll have to educate doctors that it’s OK to do this,” he said. “Most of us recognise that medicinal cannabis is not a first line treatment, it’s a second line treatment. If the conventional treatments don’t work, perhaps medicinal cannabis will.”
UPDATE: Feb. 22, 2017, 5:07 p.m. AEDT Comment added from Dr. Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.