Australia Tweaks Medical Access Cannabis Law As Growers Line Up For Licenses

Marguerite Arnold

September 27th, 2017

Policy, Top News

With all the exciting movements afoot in several hemispheres when it comes to all things cannabis, it is easy to forget that there is another revolution underway in Australia.

So what is up, Down Under?

Quite a few interesting developments, with not only country-wide, but global implications. Including, as it turns out, a bill to fast-track access to imported cannabis for terminal Australian patients expected to pass by October. Not to mention a new player clearly forming on the global, medical cannabis ex-im stage.

What A Difference A Year Makes

The Australian government moved ahead with its legalization plans late last year although it was clear that nobody was expecting this to be easy. The new law was passed in November. Yet Ecofibre, Australia’s largest medicinal and industrial cannabis supplier up to that point, suddenly announced just weeks later, it was leaving the country for the U.S. The company had just completed a $12 million capital raise.

The reason it gave for picking up stakes and moving operations to Kentucky? American law (under which cannabis is still federally illegal) was supposedly easier to navigate than emerging federally sanctioned Australia. The firm also declined to apply for a cannabis license, although it was apparently invited to do so by the government.

25 other companies, however, applied by February.

The first Australian cannabis farm license was granted in March 2017. In the meantime, the plan at least at first, was to import cannabis from abroad for chronically and terminally ill patients as licensed producers geared up to provide the first domestic supplies by next year. Regional governments, are expected to subsidize patient expenses so that monthly costs will be in the $40 range.

According to the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, at least, imported cannabis should have been available to such patients as of April, at the latest. In fact, Hunt said that not only would it be available, but such patients would be fast tracked into a high priority and quick access program so that Hunt, could in his words, “deal immediately with the question of supply.”

All’s well, that ends, well, right?

Not so fast.

Blame The Tasmanian “Devils”

In May, Tasmanian companies began to announce that they were moving into the cannabis market. And this is significant for many reasons.

Tasmanian Botanics became the first company to receive a full blown certification, receiving three licenses for research, cultivation and manufacture.

Tasmanian Botanics might have been the first Aussie-Tasmanian hybrid, but they were not the last. In fact, in a partnership also set up that month and successfully minted by mid July, Tasmanian Alkaloids and AusCann, an Australian based company, announced that they too had been also granted a medical cannabis license.

And this threw the entire discussion into a very different light. If not island. Tasmania, in fact, and one company, Tasmanian Alkaloids, produce about 40% of the world’s legal opioid supply. The climate is equally conducive to cannabis as it is to poppies. That said, the idea of one tiny island just south of Australia cornering anywhere close to that percentage of the global medical cannabis market is patently ridiculous – particularly at this point.

Nevertheless, it is clearly a highly valuable piece of cannabis real estate.

Technically, of course, both Tasmanian Botanics and Tasmanian Alkaloids would also be “importers” into the Australian market. Tasmania is separated by the Bass Strait and 150 miles of relatively shallow water from the southern coast of Australia – and the state of Victoria. All product shipped from the island, in other words, would be subject to international transportation issues and regulation. Tasmanian grown cannabis, in other words, would also be an import. Worse, at least for patients, it will not be ready for consumption for the next 12-18 months.

As a result, the idea of a domestic-international, sort of cannabis “importer” threw the political discussion into another bizarre twist of topsy turvy.

Who Has Access To What & How Fast?

In June, the Senate voted to amend the country’s drug law to fast-track access to medical cannabis for certain classes of chronically ill if not dying patients. The legislation was apparently intended, in other words, to codify the intent of the Federal Health Ministry. Currently, patients who want to get access to either imported or locally produced cannabis, must go through a lengthy process to get approved. This frequently can take six months or more.

Three days after the Senate vote in June, however, the government – in fact an official at the Office of Drug Control within the Federal Department of Health wrote to existing cannabis importers, threatening to remove their licenses if they made medical cannabis directly available to patients under the expedited access scheme.

It is uncertain what provoked the issuance of the letter from a department perspective. Nonetheless, this in turn provoked a response from Parliament, that the government was defying the intent of the cannabis law if not the will of the legislature.

As a result, the Green Party will introduce a bill blocking the right of the government to refuse cannabis to dying patients, and further fast track access by giving them top priority under the country’s drug access scheme – so-called Schedule A access. Further, patient access will be approved within hours, not months.

The bill is also widely expected to pass by this October.

An Import, Export Market Focussed On Patients First?

This in turn is significant for several reasons.

One, presuming this new legislation passes, it gives international exporters, including Canadian and Israeli companies, direct access to the Australian patient market. Tasmanian growers, not to mention other established and licensed Australian firms, as much as they may come to dominate domestic supply, now will have to compete with established foreign suppliers as they bring their first crops and products into the market next year.

Second, this quick fix is one that might be adopted by other countries moving into the medical space – notably Germany – which is facing similar issues. Further, it is widely speculated that Angela Merkel’s CDU might yet form a coalition government with German Greens. If that is the case, look for similar strategies politically in Germany after the fall election.

Third, it establishes yet another country where cannabis is recognized for its medicinal value at the federal level and further one that recognizes the value of imports as well as global exports for narcotic drugs. Further, it does so at a time when other countries continue to examine the issue and how to successfully integrate at least patients into medical cannabis programs. Australia’s approach might well prove to be the blueprint for further national legalization and integration campaigns.

And finally, and not insignificantly? It moves Australia, and Tasmania specifically into the global medical cannabis supply chain. As these are federally issued and approved licenses, that means that Tasmanian suppliers, in particular, will be entering a world market where medical grade cannabis will be in short supply for the next several years.

With a sped up approval process for patients and a global demand beckoning, despite all the early mistakes and miscues, Aussie-bred cannabis, if not its Tasmanian twin, may well be on its way to a pharmacy near you by as early as next year.

About Marguerite Arnold

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