Rioters have undoubtedly noticed that the issue of the medicinal use of cannabis is getting a lot of attention right now. It seems a lot people support it – patients, carers, a range of medical professionals, broadcaster Alan Jones, and even the Prime Minister. Despite this, the laws have not changed, and some are arguing we need more long term medical trials, meaning that people who would benefit from using it now will be forced to continue to act illegally if they do use it.
Research published in reputable medical and scientific journals indicates that there is strong evidence that cannabis can alleviate distressing symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting from chemotherapy, chronic pain (especially from nerve damage), and spasticity from multiple sclerosis. It is an effective drug in certain situations where conventional drugs simply aren’t effective.
Australia has blanket laws which criminalise cannabis whether it is used recreationally or medicinally. So people who are dying or suffering can’t legally access a treatment that could improve their quality of life.
Earlier this year I tabled draft legislation that would set up a basic system for access to medicinal cannabis. It allows an eligible person to possess, use and grow a controlled amount of cannabis, and for that to not be a crime. It is a Bill that does not affect the laws around recreational use. Controls and safeguards in the scheme would include that only people with particular illnesses are eligible, that the drug can’t be used for any other purpose, and that only a small amount of cannabis can be kept.
In the face of a growing public debate, politicians around the country have made statements in support of medicinal cannabis, some supporting clinical trials before medicinal cannabis is made available, others support the availability of medicinal cannabis in pharmaceutical form after it has been through an approval process run by the federal Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
While these proposals might sound positive, there is a risk that they will lead to lengthy delays with no guaranteed outcomes for people who are suffering now and who could benefit from medicinal cannabis now. We’ve seen this before – in 1999 the NSW Government announced it would establish a four year trial of the medical use of cannabis. The prominence of the issue faded and the trial never happened. Even if a clinical trial did now eventuate, it could take years for the results to be translated into a policy shift.
Perhaps more importantly, I would argue that the evidence is already sufficiently strong to support the use of medicinal cannabis now. As an example, a recent German medical review, cited in the Medical Journal of Australia, assessed the controlled trials that had already been conducted around the world and found the majority were favourable. On the strength of the evidence, many other countries already allow access to medicinal cannabis. Over 20 US states allow the use of medicinal cannabis. The Netherlands allows patients to collect cannabis from pharmacies on prescription. Yes, trials in Australia would be useful. More evidence and information is always useful. But trials shouldn’t be a hurdle that must be passed before we let sick people use cannabis.
The Bill that the Greens have put forward for legalising access in the ACT is a solution that we can act on now, removing the obstacles for those who need access to medicinal cannabis. It’s a moderate approach that means that those who are sick, and their families and carers, will not be forced to commit a crime when they seek to relieve their own suffering, or the suffering of their loved ones.