The Australian Senate Passes Medical Cannabis Legislation

On Wednesday, the 24th of February, the Australian Senate passed new changes to the Narcotic Drugs Act1, which will allow the legal cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. Greens leader Richard Di Natale said the changes were an “important first step” to legalising medicinal cannabis, but more work was needed to deal with how cannabis would be prescribed and distributed. While this is progress, however, these new changes will not make Australia the next Colorado. It is still illegal to grow cannabis, or hemp, for personal use, and as one woman has stated, “There’s no guarantee that what the government offers will be suitable for their type of condition”2.

So what do these changes actually mean? Simply, the aim of the updates is to create a national body that can issue licences to growers

Legality of cannabis for medical purposes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

and regulate Australian crops1. Some companies have already begun preparing to import medical cannabis cuttings and searching for appropriate sites on which to cultivate them. Cannabis is still legally a “Prohibited Substance” under the poisons schedule, but the government and Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is considering moving it into the “controlled substance” class. This would put cannabis into the same class as morphine, and is claimed to “reduce any barriers to access”, although patients would be required to present a “valid prescription”. A patient with severe epilepsy or nausea as a side effect of conventional cancer treatments may be able to access cannabis under these new laws, but not someone just looking to nip pain and inflammation in the bud. Having to resort to pharmaceutical painkillers for minor troubles may not seem like a big deal, but drugs such as paracetamol are not completely harmless. Hospitals in Victoria, Australia, saw an average of 2,095 cases of paracetamol poisoning3 from the year 2001 to 2007, with accidental overdoses making up 15% of these. Only 26 cases involved death directly related to paracetamol use, but the healthcare costs and illness result in significant social impact.

Fluid extract of Cannabis indica, 1906.

Australia Medical Cannabis Legislation

It is also possible that not all patients able to receive “medical” cannabis prescriptions will receive real cannabis. Plans are underway to give epileptic children access to a new “cannabis based” pharmaceutical that aims to control seizures, which is being touted for its non-psychoactive effects4. Will some patients only be given access to these drugs, barred from true hemp extracts at their doctors’ discretions? And are synthetic versions of cannabis just as safe and effective? Actually, synthetic cannabinoids, which are often more potent, can disrupt5 the endocannabinoid system, with some classes able to cause side effects such as psychosis and psychosis-like symptoms. Recently, another drug designed to act on the endocannabinoid system was implicated in the death of one patient6, and possible brain damage of several others, during a trial in France. Specifically, this drug was meant to inhibit the enzyme that breaks down the body’s own cannabinoids. This follows past research on the drug Rimonabant, which blocks a type of endocannabinoid receptor, that resulted in extreme depression and suicidal tendencies in some participants. These past failures all warn against manipulating the endocannabinoid system with pharmaceutical drugs, when natural cannabinoids and whole extracts are much safer.

So far, the only change resembling the legalisation of cannabis in Australia is an amendment legalising cultivation for medical and scientific purposes. It has not been rescheduled, nor have there been any guidelines put in place in regards to prescription. There are also no guarantees as to what types of cannabis or hemp will be legal, or what methods of administration will be allowed, and no guarantee of patient choice even for the conditions it will be available for. This new law is a step in the right direction, but Australia still has a long way to go.

References

1:  http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/senate-passes-medicinal-cannabis-legislation-20160224-gn2gjk.html

2: http://www.examiner.com.au/story/3753343/cannabis-laws-too-restrictive/

3: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23489151

4: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-24/cannabis-based-drug-to-be-made-available-to-nsw-epiliepsy-kids/7110234

5: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/T_Brunt/publication/270966118_The_adverse_health_effects_of_synthetic_cannabinoids_with_emphasis_on_psychosis-like_effects/links/55106d120cf2ba84483dee20.pdf

6: http://www.ladybud.com/2016/02/09/messing-with-cannabinoid-receptors-can-be-fatal/

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