In February, Australian parliament passed laws to permit the manufacture of medical cannabis at a national level. Health Minister Sussan Ley called it a historical day, the law change had bi-partisan support, and yet as we are nearing the end of 2016 there would appear to be no change in sight. So realistically, how close are we to seeing some form of legalisation of marijuana?
Dr. Alex Wodak A.M, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, is hopeful that change will come soon.
"I expect that it will happen in 2017. The Federal Government prefers a national scheme to a system where six states and two territories operate their own systems. I agree with that view but the USA seems to be able to manage with 28 states having approved medicinal cannabis - only a few haven’t started yet. But obviously negotiating a national system between nine governments is not going to happen quickly. Because of the delays, several states have now started their own systems and must make negotiation even more difficult and protracted. Part of me would prefer a better system even if its a little later. But the other part of me wants a system today, even if it’s not perfect.
Andrew Kavasilas is Secretary of the Australian HEMP Party, and a licensed hemp grower. He has been growing, researching, breeding, and developing cannabis varieties since 1999, under various permits. As far as he is concerned, any talk of legalisation is just that.
"Realistically, no government in the world has willingly introduced a meaningful medical cannabis regime", he says. "That's why there are no prescription medicines. Our government is saying it will be the first to allow cannabis to be grown for product development that may lead to clinical trials, which then may lead to prescription medication.
"As far as the TGA is concerned, it's a new drug and must go through all regulatory processes; this usually means five to ten years and many many millions of dollars. You have to ask yourself, why hasn't any other country done it? Will Australia really be the first?"
Considering our current draconian laws, this appears doubtful.
"Australia is the only western nation that bans the consumption of hemp seed foods," Kavasilas continues. "Australia is also the only country to use random roadside saliva testing as we do. The hold up on hemp foods is that police say it may interfere with their saliva testing.
"If we haven't sorted out hemp seed, it'll be pretty hard to allow medical cannabis."
Even if legalisation happens, the amount of red tape involved means it is likely to be a painfully protracted process.
"The first legislation - which was passed in early 2016 - covers importation and cultivation", Dr. Wodak explains. "There is other legislation which is on the way. One part will deal with storage. One argument is for restricted storage in say, hospital pharmacies. Another perspective is to open up access by allowing storage in community pharmacies. The next part is who will be allowed to be the gatekeeper. All doctors? Specially authorised doctors? Doctors who have been trained and passed an exam? Will cannabis be prescribed? The last part is about what forms of cannabis will be allowed and for what sort of patients."
Wodak argues that simply legalising a wide range of vendors of medicinal cannabis isn't necessarily the answer, and may, in fact, be detrimental to the overall cause.
"There is an argument for starting with a small and restrictive approach and then liberalising as needed", he explains. "It is much easier to do that than start off with a very liberal approach and then discover problems and try to make the system more restrictive. But we have to remember that demand for medicinal cannabis is very strong and patients who very much want to try and relieve their symptoms with medicinal cannabis will continue to obtain supplies from the unregulated black market. There are many powerful reasons why that is not a good idea. The more restrictive our lawful medicinal cannabis system is, the more patients will continue to use black market supplies."
Michael Balderstone, the President of the Australian HEMP Party resides in Nimbin, long considered Australia's premier marijuana centre, and takes a more conspiratorial view of the plant's criminalisation.
"Big Pharma and the police are the biggest roadblocks; both stand to lose a lot of business if the laws change", he suggests. "Both lobby hard to protect their interests. Behind them comes the alcohol industry, the church, and jail guards "union", etc etc. In a word, money! But also UN treaties, which [HEMP] takes particularly seriously because of the opium crops in Tassie supplying half of Big Pharma's crop of O."
Of course, there is also a push to soften the laws regarding recreational use - a position many in government simply cannot abide. Still, Dr. Wodak remains hopeful, and feels the taxation and regulation of the drug could have far-reaching benefits.
"Once legal medicinal cannabis is available in Australia, a debate will start questioning why recreational cannabis remains illegal and unregulated", he predicts. "60% of Americans in the 2016 US Gallup poll supported regulating recreational cannabis. Now eight states - representing 25% of the US population - have approved taxing and regulating recreational cannabis. Californian votes passed a ballot on 8 November supporting taxing and regulating recreational cannabis. California is now the sixth biggest economy in the world, bigger than France or the UK. Trends starting in California often soon spread across the USA and the rest of the world.
"Australia will be taxing and regulating recreational cannabis within five years", he predicts.
"Regulation enables package health warning labels, provision of help seeking information and information about contents which will strengthen consumer protection. Regulation will help restrict sales to underage children. Taxing cannabis will increase government revenue at a time of concern about balancing the budget. This revenue may also help to fund alcohol and drug prevention and treatment."
Balderstone isn't so sure.
"Recreational use is still fully criminal in the polices eyes, and they love the power it gives them, I believe, and wont let it go easily. Plus having to admit they’ve been barking up the wrong tree for fifty years and ruining a lot of peoples lives instead of helping them [is] hard to swallow. But maybe the courts will start going easier and easier on personal amounts to the point where the cops are wasting their time busting people. We keep on batting away at educating people, but the cost and health-saving statistics will start to influence our budget people here soon. In short, money will lead to changes in the end."
"The problem is simple, and complex", Kavasilas adds. "80 odd years of propaganda is hard to unravel."
Weediquette, broadcast on SBS VICELAND Wednesday nights at 8:30pm, each week explores issues pertaining to the marijuana industry, culture, and legislation. Catch up on previous episodes on SBS On Demand: