Australian Capital Territory

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As we have seen elsewhere on this site, a single, national body with blanket responsibility for all things medicinal cannabis, from production through to registration of products and access by doctors and patients would probably have relieved States and Territories from much, if not all of the regulatory burdens they now – in theory – face.  And an attempt to create one was made, with the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill which was never enacted and replaced by the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act of 2016 and its attendant Regulations.


Because of legislation (see History & Background‘ section of site) States and Territories would provide a second tier of licensing for local cultivation and access by patients and doctors and needing to adhere to national and state-level legislation and regulation.


In the Australian Capital Territory cannabis generally is governed by the Drugs of Dependence (Amendment) Act 1992 and operates a SCON – Simple Cannabis Offence Notices – scheme which allows for a fine and no criminal record for possessing small amounts of the (illicit) drug.


An view of where the Territory sits in the overall scheme of things is provided in the The Australian Cannabis Law Reform Movement’s article on the NimbinAustralia website with its excellent and well referenced backdrop to ‘the history, laws and International Treaties’ pertaining to the herb’s use generally throughout the country, including, obviously, the Capital Territory.


And an ‘at a glance’ sketch of States and Territory laws can also be found on the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) website where the ACT entry says:


‘The Australian Capital Territory introduced a civil penalty system for the possession of ‘small amounts’ of cannabis in 1993. If someone is caught with up to two non-hydroponic cannabis plants, or up to 25 grams of marijuana (cannabis plant material), they receive a $100 fine with 60 days to expiate (pay the fine) instead of a criminal charge. Instead of paying the fine, the person may choose to attend a drug assessment and treatment program.’


Where medical cannabis is concerned, the ACT has been active in policy development both at Federal and local levels.


In July 2014 a discussion paper – ‘Medicinal Cannabis’ – was produced by Shane Rattenbury, Green Party’s MLA for Molonglo, inviting feedback on a proposed Drugs of Dependence (Cannabis Use for Medical Purposes) Amendment Bill 2014 his party had introduced. In his paper, Mr Rattenbury argued that ‘people dying from terminal illnesses, or enduring chronic pain, should be able to use cannabis to alleviate the symptoms caused by their illnesses,’ and described how he had spoken with such individuals. The document, he said, ‘tells the stories of those who find themselves in the difficult circumstance of requiring access to medicinal cannabis,’ and asked for ‘compassion to people who are ill, suffering or dying.’


It went on to explore why such legislation was needed and what it would do, possible permits to grow cannabis, a review of existing legislation -local, national and international – as well as the status of medical cannabis at those levels and what options might be open to the ACT.


After a Public Inquiry (details of which appear to have been removed from the ACT Legislative Assembly website) The Bill was considered by the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Health, Ageing, Community and Social Services. The Committee recommended the Government reject the Bill because it was, the Committee felt, naive and ill considered’ although it also suggested the Government ‘look further into the regulations, costs and medical trials needed to progress a medicinal cannabis scheme’.


The ACT also made a Submission to the Federal Government’s Public Inquiry on the Senate’s Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill, mentioned above and which, as we have said, was not enacted and replaced by the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill in 2016.


The ACT’s submission was though positive in regard to the matter and in August 2016, the Territory’s Assistant Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris said the Government was prioritising the establishment of a medical cannabis scheme and would do so ‘as soon as practicable’. The ACT, she said, was hoping to become ‘a leader in the research and development of cannabis products in Australia’ and would and develop a framework for the prescription, use and distribution of medicinal cannabis to those who need them on medical grounds.’


As in all other States and Territories, access to the drug would also be subject to regulation by the TGA via its Special Access Schemes, one for prescribers, the other for patients – which had been available even before the law changed and, elsewhere, giving rise to complaints of undue bureaucracy and financial concerns since under the Schemes patients are obliged to meet the full cost of their medication.


At Territory level the Australian Medical Association were cautious, as they had been when dealing with the matter nationally, again saying insufficient evidence existed for the efficacy of cannabis. ‘We all want to help patients, we all want to help people get better, but we’re not really sure what we’re doing at the moment,’ said the Association’s ACT President Professor Steve Robson.


Medicinal cannabis campaigner Mark Heinrich, whose home was raided by police for supplying high-CBD cannabis oil to the family of young child with a rare genetic brain disorder welcomed the initiative and  charges against him were later dropped. ACT Parliamentarian Shane Rattenbury, who had by now been pushing for such a scheme for two years also welcomed the announcement. The Canberra Times however has also carried negative articles about medical use of the herb, reporting extensively on a local man whose daughter complained to police about him giving her cannabis oil.