Western Australia

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Western Australia has long had a tempestuous relationship with cannabis generally –  faintly ironic given three of the biggest prospective producers of its medical variant are located within the State.

It’s been something of a late-comer to the medicinal cannabis arena too, waiting for the Federal Government’s Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act of 2016 and accompanying regulatory changes to take effect before announcing its plans.

But, as we have discussed 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 not only WA but all other States and Territories from much, if not all of the regulatory burdens now faced.

The Senate’s Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill of 2014 had proposed to create such an entity 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 thus cannabis products would be forced through existing regulatory processes governed by the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 and overseen by the Federal Government’s powerful Therapeutic Goods Administration – the 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 permitswith 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 – and this includes Western Australia, with its cannabis love/hate relationship.

Here, in its illicit form, the drug is governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981 and in 2004 the State adopted a civil penalty scheme for possession which but this was overturned in 2011 following a change in government and the enactment of a Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act that year, followed by another Amendment in 2015.

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 Western Australian entry says:

‘As of August 2011, individuals in possession of not more than 10 grams of harvested cannabis and/or a used smoking implement who have no prior cannabis offences will be required to attend a Cannabis Intervention Session (CIS) within 28 days or receive a cannabis conviction for the offence. All cannabis cultivation offences will attract a criminal conviction’.

Medicinal cannabis too has aroused some controversy being the subject of a row in 2014 when the State’s former Health Minister Kim Hames said a vow by Labor to legalise the drug for medicinal purposes would ‘totally dilute the message about stopping people smoking marijuana for recreational use‘.

Hames though changed his mind not long after following a rally in Perth at which demonstrators called for the right to access the drug for medical use.

And following passage of the Federal Government’s Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act in February 2016 (discussed in the ‘History & Background‘ and ‘Arguments For And Against‘ sections of this site) the WA Government was quick to respond.

Within days it announced it would establish an ‘Expert Advisory Council’ to meet monthly to which doctors would apply if they wished to prescribe the drug (with additional permissions needed via the Federal Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration Special Access Schemes and Authorised Prescribers Scheme). The Committee, says the Western Australian Government, will meet monthly and doctors may begin prescribing in early 2017. More information is given on the Western Australian Department of Health website and sister site ‘Healthy WA‘.

Here as elsewhere, the Australian Medical Association and other organisations have expressed misgivings, with the Royal Australian College of GPs President quoted as saying doctors would not ‘flock to cannabis’ because ‘supporting evidence was very limited,’ and the AMA adding ‘cannabis was seldom an effective drug but had strong community support because many people liked to smoke it to get high.’

Business too has been prominent in Western Australia; three cannabis companies listed on the ASX (where trials and tribulations have been experienced) – MGC Pharmaceuticals, once a mining company that sold its African gold exploration interests to enter the medical cannabis business and MMJ Phytotech are based there.

And AusCann – formerly Tasman Health Cannabinoids, a company started by the colourful Dutch/Australian cannabis expert Nevil Schoenmakers can also be found in the State. Schoenmakers, who founded the world’s first cannabis seed bank in the Netherlands also made a Submission to the Federal Government’s Public Inquiry into the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill in 2015 (see below).

All three firms are interesting – AusCann boasts Libral ex-Federal MP Mal Washer as its chairman and has made several abortive attempts to begin cultivation in a number of different locations while individuals from both MGC Pharma and MMJ Phytotech were prominent in the development of the medical cannabis story in Israel. MMJ Phytotech were the first cannabis company to be listed on the AMX but experienced problems when its Chairman quit the company in February 2016. MGC have also produced two White Papers in conjunction with the University of Sydney – ‘Clinical Evidence for Medicinal Cannabis: Epilepsy, Cancer and Multiple Sclerosis’ and ‘Medicinal Cannabis in Australia: Science, Regulation & Industry,’ the latter concluding Australia would need between 13-50,000 m2 of growing space to meet its medicinal cannabis needs (and the Federal Government’s Office of Drug Control estimating two hectares (20,000 m2).

Ambitions of two of the above companies were discussed in a local ABC news report in which the welcomed the WA Government decision.