Australia Wants To Be #1 Globally For Medical Cannabis – What Needs To Happen?
Can you buy legal cannabis in Australia?
Cannabis is only legal when prescribed to a patient who needs it in Australia. The law was changed only two years ago, in 2016, to allow even that exception. Recreational cannabis is not legal in any form, in any state or territory, in Australia. Australia’s medical cannabis business has grown slowly since, a far cry from the enormous increase in output seen in US states which have legalized.
Members of the Australian Government, however, have taken it upon themselves to set a bold target. Australia wants to be the world’s largest exporter of medical cannabis. To this end, the government eliminated laws earlier this year (2018) which precluded the export of cannabis and cannabis related products.
Such bold claims from the government hide the reality on the ground. Despite changes to legislation it is still extremely difficult for even patients who meet the criteria to a) be prescribed the drug and then b) to obtain it legally, for example, through a pharmacy.
Here’s what would need to change if Australia did want to become the world’s largest exporter of cannabis.
What needs to happen to improve Australia’s cannabis exports
Perhaps surprisingly, the UK is the world’s number 1 producer of medical cannabis, according to a UN report produced by the UN International Narcotics Control Bord (INCB). The UK produced nearly 100,000 Kg of the substance and exporting nearly 3% of that in 2016. That’s a near 100% increase in the amount exported the previous year. In total, the UK alone accounts for nearly half of all (legal) cannabis production. This, despite cannabis consumption being illegal for any reason in the UK.
Importantly, there is one exception to the UK’s laws on the production of cannabis. Sativex, a cannabis based drug designed to prevent epileptic seizures which is legal for prescription in the UK and provided free of charge under the National Health Service in Wales. Sativex, alone, accounts for the majority of the cannabis which is manufactured.
The policies and activities which have made England so successful, in such difficult circumstances provide insight in to what Australia must to beat the UK at its own game. There are two primary components of the market for cannabis which need to be changed in order to give Australia the chance to become the world’s number 1 exporter.
- Invest in medical research to prove the benefits of cannabis
One of the key uses of cannabis grown in the UK is for medical research in to the therapeutic uses of the product. It has been illegal to grow, use or be in possession of cannabis in almost every country in the world for the last half century. As a result, the amount of marijuana available for legal medical trials has been extremely limited. Unfortunately, that means there is now little evidence available on the medical benefits of the drug which constrains Doctor’s willingness to prescribe it.
The Australian Government needs to make Medical Research into Cannabis a priority and create frameworks to facilitate the possibility. There is already some movement in this area. A private company, Medical Cannabis Research Australia has been established to pursue opportunities in Medical Cannabis Research and a number of tests are now taking place.
- Legalize Recreational Cannabis
The primary spur behind Canada’s recent avalanche of investment in to cannabis manufacture is the anticipation of an imminent market for recreational cannabis – something the country will legislate to achieve in late 2018.
Shortly after confirmation by the Canadian Government, that policy would be changed to allow recreational consumption, the number of manufacturers with licenses to produce cannabis rose from around 40 in 2016, to around 80 in 2017. It is this investment which has driven Canada’s growth in cannabis output and exports. It seems likely Canada will overtake the UK as the world’s number 1 exporter as a result of this single change.
Canada’s experience with legalization is something of a cautionary tale. Despite jurisdictions in the US (notably Colorado) having implemented the same change 5 years ago now, Canada appears to have been caught on the back foot in developing a sensible, actionable policy and legal framework to accommodate the change. The result so far has been 2 delays in implementation. The latest date for the rollout of recreational cannabis in Canada is set at August 2018 and that too appears like it might slip further back.
Bringing it all together
The Australian government wants to be number 1 in the world for medical cannabis primarily to ensure the availability of cannabis to medical patients. In order for the claim to become anything more than another half-truth spoken by a Government Health Minister, some iron clad decisions need to be made to create realistic circumstances in which a viable export market might be created.
Australia certainly has the climate to grow the drug without the expensive and environmentally questionable UK growers who use large amounts of electricity to grow their cannabis crops indoors.
The path to success is remarkably achievable. It simply required genuinely opening the doors to the market. Despite the illegality of marijuana in Australia, per capital, residents of the country consumer more than people in any other country in the world. Recognizing this demand and encouraging science based research to determine the afflictions which would benefit from cannabis prescriptions would seem to be a transparently sensible step.
There is some hope for Australia, however. A thorough set of recommendations was recently provided to the state government of Victoria, the second biggest state by population in Australia. Those who generated the report had flown to Colorado and Canada to investigate the successes and difficulties those regions had experienced in getting to sensible policy. By learning from the mistakes made in two countries, whose legal and cultural frames are so similar to Australia, it may be possible to achieve the goal of the world’s number 1 exporter of cannabis, in a relatively short time, once a firm decision is made.