Tasmania is already well known for its opium poppy industry, which over the last five decades has become the world’s biggest, producing – along with other States playing a relatively minor role – over 50% of the global supply of the base constituent of commercially produced drugs such as morphine, codeine and similar opioid pharmaceuticals.
It is no surprise then the Tasmanian Government was keen to develop a corresponding business for medical cannabis, signing a deal in 2015 with a ‘zombie’ company – Capital Mining to farm the crop on the island – an arrangement that never took off.
More than that though, the State is also establishing perhaps one of the more forward-thinking plans to ensure the drug is available while adhering to local and Federal law.
Its ‘Controlled Access Scheme’ will not leave matters to GPs but rather allow ‘treating specialists’ – those with expertise in certain fields of medicine – to prescribe cannabis in certain circumstances under a Government-imposed conditions after applications have been reviewed by an Expert Panel. Tasmania has produced a fact-sheet on the matter and says intends to ‘undertake further work to establish efficient administrative processes to support the scheme before it commences operation.’
Such a scheme and licensing arrangements however would not have been necessary had a national body been created – with blanket responsibility for all things medicinal cannabis, from production through to registration of products and access by doctors and patients – which the Senate’s Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill of 2014 had proposed.
Instead, that Bill was replaced by the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act which came into effect on 1st November 2016 which would force cannabis products through existing regulatory processes governed by the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 and overseen by the Federal Government’s powerful Therapeutic Goods Administration – the Government Department that both controls and regulates access to to existing, registered medicines and, via a rigorous, costly and time-consuming registration process, decides which new medical products reach the Australian market.
A new sister organisation to the TGA, called the Office of Drug Control was also 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 cannabis generally is concerned, an ‘at a glance’ sketch of States and Territory laws can be found on the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) website where the Tasmanian entry says:
‘Someone found in the possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis can be given a caution up to three times in ten years. For the first caution, information and referral is provided. A brief intervention is given with the second caution. On the third and final caution, the offender must be assessed for drug dependence and attend either a brief intervention or treatment program.’
Illicit use of the drug is governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 2001 and the Tasmanian Government feels no change to existing legislation or the introduction of new laws will be necessary to implement its medical cannabis scheme.
It began investigating the matter by assigning the job to a Legislative Committee (‘A’) and, as with its counterparts in the ACT, NSW, Queensland and Victoria, held a Public Inquiry involving individual submissions and three public hearings. These took place on, respectively, 18th September, 19th September and 22nd September that year.
Many of the now-well-rehearsed arguments pro- and con use of the drug for medical purposes were raised during this time as well as – in Tasmania’s case – robust proposals for how local cultivation could work and benefit the local economy, as poppies had done. Submissions and evidence were received from health professionals, law enforcement representatives, (medical) cannabis users themselves and from business, which saw an opportunity laying ahead.
The main debate though was, and continues to be essentially one between the medical, academic and pharmaceutical ‘Establishment’ and those working (and thinking) outside it. We have discussed the Commonwealth’s Public Inquiry into the matter in some detail within this section of the website (thus do not replicate the same exercise here with the Tasmanian process). It provides the most effective means of understanding fully the positions taken and casts light on why the Federal Government behaved as it did, pivoting on those who believe, often passionately and from direct personal experience, that cannabis is in certain circumstances a life-saving drug. Others, like the Australian Medical Association, insist there is a lack of evidence of this and exchanges to and fro, together with the often harrowing stories of those who have suffered and found relief provide, as we have said, an unrivalled portrait of the major issues at hand.
By the time ‘Committee A’ had undertaken its investigation and was creating a final Report events had progressed elsewhere, especially at Federal level after the Senate moved the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill (discussed above) in November 2014. The Committee lent its support though concluded that continuing its Inquiry would be ‘duplicative and unnecessary’, saying it would ‘keep a watching brief on developments at the Federal level and in other jurisdictions.’
Before publishing its full Report the Committee produced an interim version in November 2014 which was attached to the final document and set down six recommendations. These were that the Government quickly amend the law to protect medical cannabis users from legal reprisal; develop a framework to enable use of the drug under medical supervision; facilitate research in cooperation with other organisations; treat those growing low TCH cannabis differently from those growing high THC varieties and engage with companies with appropriate expertise to grow and manufacture products from the plant.
After the final Report was published, the Government formally responded, rejecting some of the Committee’s suggestions (amending the law being one of them) and supporting others (such as engaging with commercial organisations). It also signalled its opposition to the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill, saying the circumvention of TGA processes would ‘set a dangerous precedent.’
It also discussed the proposed clinical trials in New South Wales and soon after, Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with that State to cooperate on clinical trials and research & development, though with no financial involvement – a move described by Opposition leaders as ‘too little, too late’.
Another individual was also vocal in the Tasmanian debate – campaigner Nicole Cowles whose 10 year-old daughter’s severe epilepsy responds well to cannabis.
During the Public Inquiry Ms Cowles – who set up the Facebook site Medical Cannabis Kids and also provided Submission to the Federal Government’s own Inquiry- told the Government she felt denying children such as her daughter legal access to the drug was in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, citing Articles 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 23, 24 and 27 saying these gave her child the right to do so.
In 2015 she told the ABC she would not allow her daughter to take part in the NSW clinical trials – with which, as we have said, Tasmania was partnered – because she didn’t want to run the risk of the child being given a placebo.
And in October 2016 she called on the Government to accommodate small-scale growers.
Speaking again to the ABC, she said ‘We still have a long way to go with Tasmania’s access to medical cannabis,‘ after Health Minister Michael Ferguson spoke of a local cannabis industry.