For almost half a century NSW has been a sort of heartland of everything cannabis.
In this State is to be found the alternative community at Nimbin where the herb has been grown, used and celebrated since the village’s ‘foundation’ in 1973, replete with its ‘Hemp Embassy‘, Hemp Party and local cannabis-based businesses such as ‘Mullaways‘ and a collective of industrial hemp growers, such as the Northern Rivers Hemp Association. The community’s residents have without doubt done as much as anyone to place and maintain cannabis on the map – including for medicinal use and it’s impossible not to mention them here.
NSW is likewise home to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) – the NSW University-based premier think tank on drugs. NDARC additionally hosts NCPIS – the Government-funded National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (which the Government said it would close in December 2016) but also at the University is the Australian Drug Law Reform Initiative a research and campaigning organisation.
In 2016 a research centre, the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics, was opened at another University – this one in Sydney – after a wealthy couple, Barry and Joy Lambert donated over $30,000,000 to fund the project because their grand-daughter’s intractable epilepsy had responded well to cannabis treatment.
The NSW Government too has been at the forefront of the cannabis debate over the years having produced a number of seminal reviews on the matter, also becoming the first State to obtain permission from the Commonwealth to grow medical cannabis and – eventually – to create a ‘Centre for Medical Cannabis Research and Innovation’ to run clinical trials, undertake trials and ‘help stakeholders navigate regulatory processes’ pertaining to the drug.
Historically, one of the NSW Government’s Reports was particularly important – that of the the ‘Working Party on the Use of Cannabis for Medical Purposes‘ which was published in 2000 becoming one of the most widely quoted documents in the canon, recommending as it did the State sanction research into medical cannabis products, implement a ‘compassionate’ scheme for appropriate patients and a trial-run of exempting individuals possessing, growing or using the herb for therapeutic purposes.
Further suggestions of a four-year medical trials of the drug were made in 2003 but neither this nor the recommendations of the 2000 Report were acted upon at the time.
In 2013, the NSW Government’s National Party-led General Purpose Standing Committee No. 4 released another report after holding a Public Inquiry the year before into the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Submissions to the Inquiry together with transcripts from the inquiry hearings are available on the Parliament of New South Wales website, and after this process the committee recommended the State seek Commonwealth assistance for a medical cannabis trial.
This too was rejected and in 2014 the Green Party introduced a ‘Drug Legislation Amendment (Use of Cannabis for Medical Purposes) Bill 2014‘ which would allow terminally ill people to apply for a card permitting cannabis use and possession if approved by their doctor and although the Bill failed, in December that year Premier Mike Baird announced the NSW Government would fund trials into use of the drug among terminally ill adults and chemotherapy patients, finding support from the Council of Australian Governments.
Around this time the Senate’s Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill had found its way through the Upper House and was a hot topic in Government. Central to events both at State and Commonwealth levels was Lucy Haslam, a housewife, businesswoman and mother from Tamworth (in NSW) who’d begun campaigning when she found herself an unwilling criminal by treating her critically ill son Dan with cannabis to relieve the effects of his chemotherapy. She and Dan lobbied the NSW Government after the Standing Committee’s Report mentioned above went ignored and began a national petition aimed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull . It received over 250,000 signatures and their story became national when Channel 7 covered Dan’s story and those of others in its Sunday Night programme in June 2014.
And after radio giant Alan Jones interviewed Mrs Haslam and Dan on his 2GB Breakfast Show in June 2014, he too became a medical cannabis advocate prompting ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbot to enter the fray, penning an open letter to Jones saying he thought cannabis should require no further testing if it was already approved in other countries.
After Dan died aged 25 from the bowel cancer he’d fought for so long, Mrs Haslam was featured in a further ABC documentary, ABC’s ‘Australian Story: Doing it for Dan‘ and Premier Mike Baird credited her with turning the matter of medical cannabis into a national debate. She had by this time founded the charity and lobbying group United in Compassion, now among one of the most influential voices in the medical cannabis arena and responsible for two symposia, one in 2014, the other in 2016 featuring some of the world’s foremost cannabis clinicians as well as opening a medical cannabis centre and farm named for Dan in Tamworth in April 2016.
With such extensive groundwork already laid, it is possible NSW would have proceeded along its path with or without changes in Federal legislation, and indeed the Government cited State level activity as a reason for amending the law, as a Risk Impact Statement exploring the proposed move makes clear.
Many however – including Mrs Haslam and UIC – had wanted to see a national body created with blanket responsibility for all things medicinal cannabis, from production through to registration of products and access by doctors and patients. Such an entity would probably have relieved States and Territories from much, if not all of the regulatory burdens they face today.
The Senate’s Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill of 2014 had proposed exactly that but instead, in February 2016, after a Public Inquiry into the Bill by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, that Bill was replaced by the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act which came into effect on 1st November 2016.
This put its ‘normal’ medical Regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, in charge of cannabis products along with new sister organisation called the Office of Drug Control, established to allocate licenses and permits – with onerous qualifications placed upon applicants – for the cultivation of the herb and also the manufacture of products from it.
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.
Where the law is concerned, a view of where the NSW sits in the over all scheme of things is provided in an Australian Cannabis Law Reform Movement 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, NSW.
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 NSW entry says:
‘If someone is caught with up to 15 grams of cannabis in New South Wales, they may receive a ‘caution’ from the police officer, which includes information about the harms associated with cannabis use and a number to call for drug-related information or referral. Only two cautions are allowed to be given to the same person.’
Drug law generally is governed by the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 but regulatory changes were made in July 2016 to enable doctors to provide cannabis products under two Special Access Schemes, one for patients the other for prescribers run by the Federal Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
As mentioned the Government has also funded its own Centre for Medical Cannabis Research and Innovation and is beginning clinical trials into paediatric epilepsy, palliative care and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
The Centre has also formed a working arrangement with the UK firm GW Pharmaceuticals (makers of Sativex, used for spasticity in Multiple Sclerosis) to allow some children access to GW’s new drug Epidiolex ahead of time via a State-level Special Scheme due to the ‘unrelenting nature’ of their epilepsy which some began using in August 2016.
In addition NSW also operates a Medicinal Cannabis Compassionate Use Scheme (formerly known as TICS – Terminal Illness Cannabis Scheme and also administered by the Centre for Research and Innovation which allows the police to keep a record of those known to be using the drug medicinally and use ‘discretion’ in charging such people if found in possession.
In May 2016, at the second United in Compassion symposium, mentioned above, Premier Mike Baird was heckled by members of the audience over the slow progress being made on progress with medicinal cannabis, with protestors saying the Government was moving too slowly while people in need of the drug were dying.
And in November 2016 it was widely reported the State’s clinical trials were running months behind schedule.