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03 Mar 2017

The Federal Government has given the green light to the legal sale of medicinal cannabis, with Health Minister Greg Hunt announcing that companies will be allowed to apply to distribute cannabis oils and other medical marijuana products.

Federal Parliament passed laws last year legalising medicinal cannabis use for patients with chronic and painful illnesses, but there was no legal market in Australia for the product.

And with rules varying from State to State over applying the new laws, it was too difficult for most patients to access and has helped fuel an underground supply chain.

Importation from overseas markets, which was encouraged last month by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also meant patients could wait months for the drug.

But the recent announcement from Mr Hunt signalled the wait was over and red tape was about to be reduced.

“We have listened to the concerns of patients and their families that are having difficulty accessing the product while domestic production becomes available,” the Minister said.

“We are now making it easier to access medicinal cannabis, while still maintaining strict safeguards.

“As part of these changes, importers can source medicinal cannabis products from a reputable supplier overseas and store these in a safe, secure warehouse in Australia.”

Mr Hunt said the changes meant an effective interim national inventory would be built through approved imports, while work continues on establishing the domestic cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products.

It is understood the Government has already discussed the matter with six companies who are ready to distribute the products immediately.

Approvals have already begun for the first domestic licences to cultivate cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said the move was a step in the right direction and that she had been pressuring the Government to act.

“Labor has been calling on the Government to do more to improve the access to regulated medical cannabis, with the Government being slow to act and leaving families in limbo for too long,” she said.

“However it should be noted there are still unanswered questions around the other barriers to access, such as patients’ access to doctors who can prescribe medicinal cannabis.

“This announcement can’t just deliver the same cruel empty promises that we have seen to date. It must deliver relief for the people who need it.”

But the AMA has greeted the announcement with caution.

President Dr Michael Gannon said the changes did not mean a new wonder drug was now available to Australian patients.

“Cannabis is not a new drug. It’s been around since pre-history and if it was the panacea for a whole range of medical conditions it was claimed to be by some advocates, then we would have been using it for a long period of time,” he said.

“The truth is that it potentially does have limited application in a number of areas, including the palliative care setting and including symptom relief for nausea and pain and certainly for spasticity – certain neuromuscular conditions and certain forms of juvenile epilepsy.

“But just the same as a drug company coming and saying ‘prescribe my drug’, we would say that we need to have the same approach. Show us the scientific evidence and doctors will prescribe it selectively on a patient by patient basis.

“What the Government has announced is legal avenues for supply where doctors have in good faith written a legal prescription.

“Now that’s appropriate. The last thing we want is people accessing the black market.

“In those limited circumstances where it has clinical application, patients should have access to legal avenues of supply.”

Chris Johnson

Published: 03 Mar 2017