By Geoff Winestock
The terminally ill will be protected from prosecution for using medicinal cannabis under landmark NSW drug laws but they will have to grow their own.
In what is being hailed as the start of a nationwide trend, NSW Premier Mike Baird late last month announced a more compassionate approach to medicinal cannabis, including a register of terminally ill patients who police will not charge for using cannabis as their medicine. But the measure has been criticized because supplying cannabis is still criminal and the terminally ill will have to grow their own.
A certificate from a doctor will be logged with the Department of Justice and will in theory protect terminally ill patients and up to three of their caregivers from prosecution.
Catherine Cusack, a Liberal state MP who has co-ordinated the policy changes, said the register of terminally ill would bring relief to people immediately and would probably have greater practical effect than three clinical trials of medicinal cannabis also announced last week which have attracted more media attention. “The terminally ill no longer have to be afraid of going to jail,” Ms Cusack said.
Other states could soon follow NSW’s lead in allowing medicinal cannabis which is widely used to relieve chronic pain and nausea and potentially treat other conditions. New Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced he will make medicinal use of cannabis legal by the end of 2015 and a group of federal senators has proposed a bill for a national medicinal cannabis regulator. Medicinal cannabis use has been legalised in 23 US states and a growing and processing industry has boomed to meet demand.
Supporters of medicinal cannabis have welcomed the NSW register of terminally ill but they warn it is a short-term and half measure. Laurence Mather, emeritus professor of anaesthetics at the University of Sydney, said doctors were conservative and scared of prosecution and would be reluctant to sign a certificate for the terminally ill because it would effectively prescribe cannabis to patients. He said that unless there was a major education campaign for doctors, many people would be denied access to the scheme.
He said another concern was that it would still be illegal to take cannabis and the new system just guides police in their discretion in deciding to charge people. “It should be up to doctors, not police, to decide whether to prescribe cannabis. They should just change the law and make it legal,” Professor Mather said.
Administering the scheme
Ms Cusack said that the government had asked the Department of Justice to administer the scheme to reduce the need for cannabis users to deal with police.
Troy Langman, chief executive of AusCann Group, one of several firms which is trying to secure a licence to supply medicinal cannabis legally, said the new scheme would cause problems because it would still be an offence to grow the drug. “The terminally ill need the convenience of buying cannabis with guaranteed quality.”
The NSW law will also allow for clinical trials of cannabis for epilepsy, and for chronic pain and nausea for the terminally ill and chemotherapy patients. But the trials will have to use cannabis imported from overseas. Mr Langman said there was a growing shortage of certified cannabis in places like Canada, and Australia should develop its own medicinal cannabis supply industry under federal regulation.
“Australia is perfectly placed to develop a local industry,” he said.
Ms Cusack said that the government was adamant that recreational use of cannabis would remain illegal.