It’s been five years since Australia moved to federally legalise medicinal cannabis. And 4/20 Day seems like a good time to take a look under the hood of our cannabis industry, how far we’ve come and how incredibly far we still have to go.
Recreational use or marijuana is still outlawed in most states and territories across the country – with the exception of the ACT. But even in Canberra, the laws aren’t as simple as you’d think. This means you can’t simply just buy a joint at Questacon before your turn on the giant slide.
Trust me, the irony of Australia’s cannabis laws being more cooked than anyone living in our stoner-filled nation is not lost on me.
So, in honour of the fact that it’s 4/20 and I intend on thinking about nothing but weed all day, let’s take a look at the laws around medicinal (and recreational) cannabis right here in Australia.
Cannabis in the ACT
Despite being the only state or territory in Australia to decriminalise possession and cultivation of cannabis, the ACT has the most confusing laws of all.
From January 31, 2020, it has been legal to possess 50 grams of dried cannabis and two cannabis plants per person (with a cap of four per household). Sounds great, huh?
Well, while it’s totally legal for you to possess it, it’s still illegal to buy, sell, gift or smoke weed in public. So not only does this mean you can’t go to a dispensary and buy a high-quality product, but it also means that you have to commit a crime to be able to legally possess cannabis.
Although it’s super convoluted and confusing, the laws make sense considering they were introduced as a decriminalisation measure, rather than legalisation.
“People caught with small amounts of cannabis are currently subjected to the legal system and the conviction for the possession of a small amount of cannabis can have an overwhelmingly negative impact on their lives,” the ACT Attorney-General told Gizmodo Australia in 2020.
“These reforms will free up the justice system to deal with more serious crimes. Our changes will act as a form of harm minimisation and mean that people will not be involved with the criminal justice system unnecessarily.”
Basically, the laws mean that if you get caught with a personal quantity of weed, you’re not going to clog up the already strained justice system, and you’re not going to have your life ruined with drug charges.
Medicinal Cannabis Laws By State
Any doctor in Victoria can prescribe medicinal cannabis for a patient if they believe it is clinically appropriate. They can either apply through the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Special Access Scheme on a case-by-case basis or become an Authorised Prescriber.
New South Wales:
Any doctor in NSW can prescribe medicinal cannabis if they believe it is appropriate and go through the official channels. Additionally, the NSW Government funds the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation, which helps monitor clinical trials of new cannabis-based treatments and educates the community on potential uses for medicinal cannabis.
New legislation passed in 2020 allows any registered medical practitioner to prescribe medicinal cannabis for any patient they see fit “if they believe it is clinically appropriate and have obtained the required Commonwealth approval.”
“Queensland doctors can prescribe Schedule 4 – cannabidiol (CBD) and Schedule 8 – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or tetrahydrocannabinol: cannabidiol (THC:CBD) products without a Queensland approval,” the Queensland Health (Drugs and Poisons) Regulation 1996 states.
Patients in South Australia can access medicinal cannabis if prescribed by an authorised medical practitioner. However, unlike other states, “prescribing unapproved therapeutic goods is generally restricted to medical practitioners with expertise in the management of the specific condition being treated,” according to SA Health.
Your regular doctor can prescribe medicinal cannabis but the process is significantly lengthier and more complex.
Any doctor in Western Australia can prescribe medicinal cannabis for a patient if they believe it is clinically appropriate. GPs in Western Australia can initiate cannabis treatment for most patients, however, the support of a medical specialist may be required if you have a history of drug dependence.
The prescribing doctor will also need TGA approval before writing a prescription.
The rules in Tasmania are significantly stricter than in other states, so your GP needs to refer you to a relevant medical specialist before you can be prescribed medicinal cannabis. From there, the specialist will assess you and will only prescribe cannabis in limited circumstances where other treatments have been unsuccessful.
Northern Territory residents can be prescribed medicinal cannabis by any authorised Australian doctor. However, the Department of Health recommends they see a specialist before beginning treatment.
Access is restricted to certain medical conditions where there is evidence to support its use.
Australian Capital Territory:
Medical practitioners can prescribe medicinal cannabis to ACT residents if they believe it could be a helpful treatment for your condition. However, they need TGA and territory-level approvals before they can write the script.
Medicinal Cannabis Sounds Easy To Get In Australia
On paper, it sounds like it should be pretty easy to get your hands on medicinal cannabis, right? Not exactly.
Although most medical practitioners have the power to prescribe it, albeit after jumping through a million hoops from the TGA, there are bigger hurdles for individuals to overcome before they can actively treat their conditions with cannabis.
Which Products Are Approved In Australia?
One of the major drawbacks to medicinal cannabis in Australia is the fact that only one product (Nabiximols) is a registered medicine in Australia.
Although you can access other medicinal cannabis products, they can only be obtained through special pathways for unapproved medicines (namely – the TGA), which makes the whole process significantly more difficult than regular prescription-only medication.
Can I Get Subsidised Medicinal Cannabis In Australia?
The other major issue with Australia’s frankly outdated cannabis laws is the price. On account of the fact that it’s highly regulated and not registered as a medicine in Australia, medicinal cannabis products are extremely expensive and aren’t covered by the PBS.
With so many Australians priced out of the option, it’s easy to see why people simply opt for illegal methods of obtaining cannabis to self-treat their ailments. Obviously, self-medicating is a dangerous method of treatment, but it’s not hard to see why people are pushed to this extreme when they simply can’t afford to go down the legal route.
The Driving Thing
Even if you manage to obtain a medicinal cannabis permit and can afford to fill your prescription every month, there’s also the ever-present issue of driving.
For millions of Australians, especially in regional and rural areas, driving is non-negotiable. However, driving with any trace of THC is a criminal offence nationwide, even if you’ve been prescribed medicinal cannabis.
“There’s this inconsistency in Australia where we have a group of drug driving laws that really reflect what made sense for illicit cannabis or drug use,” addiction medicine specialist at the University of Sydney Professor Nicholas Lintzeris told the ABC.
“Unfortunately, a THC-based medicine gets caught up in that drug driving. We have this anachronism in Australia where no other medication that’s legally prescribed is subject to the same drug-driving issues as medical cannabis.”
Despite the ongoing debate surrounding the driving impairment from low dose THC medications, the general advice given to patients is to wait five days before driving, or risk a fine or even a suspended license if caught driving under the influence.
This is fair enough if you’re recreationally smoking cannabis, but when it’s a medication that you’re taking daily, or even weekly, it’s simply ridiculous to suggest staying off the roads for five days at a time.
It’s been half a decade since Australia first legalised medicinal cannabis use, but with so many Australians opting for illegal alternatives over the safer, legal sources, it is pretty apparent that the system is still failing those who need it most.