Medical Marijuana Legalisation in Australia – the Current State of Play

Laws governing medical marijuana legalisation in Australia have existed for several years, but regulation can vary by state.

The global legal cannabis market is expected to double in size over the next five year, and will be worth approximately $146.4 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research.

This revenue growth is largely expected to be driven by the increasing adoption of cannabis-based medicine as a treatment option for conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, and epilepsy. The cannabis industry is now starting to gain traction worldwide due to high consumer demand and the increasing legalisation of recreational and medicinal marijuana.

Cannabis companies have been cropping up left and right over the last few years, and Australia is no exception. Early movers are already positioning themselves to capitalise on the growing market, which could become worth more than $1.2 billion in Australia alone.

A major hurdle currently facing the industry is the difficulty involved in prescribing cannabis to patients. Consumers who wish to access the drug must go through a specialist appointment and then wait up to four weeks for government approval.

While the process may be challenging, experts say that the government's current model makes it considerably easier to harvest patient data, allowing medical researchers and regulators to better understand the needs of the Australian patient base. Thankfully, the TGA has also introduced an online access system, allowing patients in some states to submit an application to the state government and the TGA at the same time.

Although the Australian cannabis industry has only existed for around three years it has still managed to make substantial headway in the sector, due to its considerable experience in the agri-pharma game.

However, the legal framework around medicinal cannabis is still in a state of flux, and regulations can vary widely from state to state.


Is Marijuana Legal in the ACT?

Earlier this year the ACT government made history, when it became the first state in Australia to make it legal to grow or possess cannabis for personal use.

The private members bill was passed in September 2019 with support from the Labor party and the Greens, making it legal for private citizens to grow up to four plants worth of naturally cultivated cannabis, or possess 50 grams for personal use.

Unfortunately, it's not all good news, as the State Government has warned that being caught growing or smoking cannabis in the ACT could still result in jail time, because the drug remains illegal at the Federal level.

According to the Labor backbencher who originally tabled the bill, Michael Pettersson, there are "some members of the community [that] may wish this bill went further, such as establishing a market for the sale of small amounts of cannabis."

"This would not be possible under current federal law, and has never been the purpose of this bill. This bill is simply about legalising cannabis for personal use," he said.

While the bill is set to come into effect from 31 January, 2020, the Federal Government has signaled that it may override the ACT's decision before this date.

The Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, stated that he may reject the legislation, and is currently waiting to review the final version of the bill.

The legalisation bill is also facing strong opposition from the Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, who claimed that legalising cannabis was a "dangerous and medically irresponsible" act. However, Hunt's justification for this claim was a single three-page briefing document—complied by his department staff—which suggested that there may be a link between cannabis use and the development of psychological disorders such as schizophrenia.

The leader of the Australian Greens Party, Richard Di Natale, argued that the purpose of the bill is not to enable greater cannabis use, but rather to take power away from the black market, while also using the tax revenue generated to promote further education and treatment for individuals suffering from substance abuse issues.

"Nearly seven million Australians choose to use cannabis," Di Natale said.

"They're sourcing products of unknown quality and purity, and of course all they're doing is feeding the mega profits of criminal syndicates and criminal gangs."

A spokeswoman for the ACT Government echoed this stance, confirming that the state government had consulted with multiple health experts on the potential impact of cannabis legalisation.

She also rejected the claims made by the Department of Health—based on statistics taken from the US— that cannabis legalisation will lead to an increase in violent behaviour, hospitalisations, and driving under the influence.

"It does not allow for the sale of cannabis or large-scale commercialisation and development as has been seen elsewhere, particularly in the US," she said.

Is Marijuana Legal in New South Wales?

New South Wales has been leading the way when it comes to patient access since March 2018, when Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that the state government had "taken a machete" to red tape, allowing for "direct and immediate access" to medicinal cannabis.

The government claims that this has slashed approval processing times for cannabis prescriptions, as patients in NSW now only require a single clinical assessment from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Previously, approvals were overseen by both the Commonwealth and NSW Health, and could take weeks to be granted.

"Where the doctors say it is required, we'll make sure it is available in a matter of days," Hunt said.

"New South Wales is now the national leader—we have had tremendous discussions with Tasmania and Victoria, and so I am hopeful that will make progress with them very shortly—but the benchmark has been set here and this is about saving lives and protecting lives, it's about giving people the capacity to go through their treatments."

The NSW Minister for Health and Medical Research, Brad Hazzard, also argued that the legislative changes will have a huge difference to patient quality of life.

"For that reason NSW has a $6 million advisory service that we established just a few months ago, and what that enables doctors to do is make a phone call and find out how can medicinal cannabis possibly assist your patient," he said.

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In February 2019 Elixinol Global Limited elected to invest almost $10 million in the state, purchasing 60 acres of cannabis growing land in Northern NSW for 2.6 million. The land has 3,400 square metre of space that the company intends to use for a $7 million planned greenhouse facility, although it has yet to receive a Medical Cannabis License from the Australian Office of Drug Control.

The managing director of Elixinol, Linda McLeod, said that the company anticipates the facility will be capable of producing 2,000-5,000 tonnes of medical cannabis per year.

"It's a fully integrated state of the art, highly secured cultivation and manufacturing facility of farmer grade medical cannabis product," she said.

"Assuming the development application is approved the construction will start around April or May. It's contingent on the timing of the application and our licences."

"What we will endeavour to do is use local contractors as much as we can for construction and ideally we would like to employ all our professional staff locally."

At the same time, the NSW Greens have also begun pushing a plan that would see the recreational use of cannabis legalised in the state. The party have promised to introduce a private member's bill to legalise, license, and regulate recreational marijuana use within the first 100 after the election, along with moving for a parliamentary inquiry into the legislation.

If passed, the bill would allow NSW residents to grow up to six cannabis plants at home for personal use, as well as consuming it wherever it is legal to smoke tobacco. The Greens say the legislation would raise an estimated $200 million per year in additional tax revenue for the state government, via a mix of GST, licensing fees, and reduced criminal prosecution costs.

Greens MP and spokesman for Justice and Policing, David Shoebridge, claims that it "makes no sense to treat the consumption of cannabis as a crime".

"We are wasting millions each year and missing out on licencing revenues that the state desperately needs. It's time we stopped taking such a backward approach to a drug that over one-third of Australians have used. No one is saying that cannabis is without any harmful effects, however making it illegal does not magically make it safer, in fact it does the opposite."

"By making cannabis legal, consumers can be certain of the concentration and quality of the product they are using, can be assured it meets minimum health standards and can be given accurate information about its likely effects," Shoebridge said.

Is Marijuana Legal in the Northern Territory?

Thus far, the Northern Territory has been stuck playing catch up to with other Australian states. The NT government is still mulling over whether to give the green light to the industrial hemp industry—which would bring it into line with the rest of the country—although the commercial cultivation of medicinal marijuana australia is already legal at the federal level.

Draft legislation to legalise the growing of industrial hemp is currently in consideration by the Cabinet, following a successful trial crop in the Katherine region that indicated the states climate conditions are going to give the NT a "big commercial advantage".

"Following a successful department trial, the Territory Labor Government believes there is serious potential to grow industrial hemp as a new job-creating industry," a government spokesperson said.

"Hemp can be used in many daily products … and we believe it will create long-term local jobs and business opportunities."

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The state also had a big win last year when it was chosen as the location of the Wayland Group's new Asia Pacific hub. The Canadian medicinal cannabis distributor launched its' Australian expansion in December when it entered into an agreement to acquire 50.1 percent of Tropicann Pty Ltd, a newly-formed Darwin based company.

According to the CEO of Wayland, Ben Ward, the acquisition—will involve an initial payment of  $4.94 million, followed by a second payment of $24.71 million once certain milestones are achieved—will allow the company to position itself in the emergent Asia Pacific market.

"It positions us to partner with industry leaders in Australia's expanding cannabis industry and the Northern Territory is the ideal location for our new Asia Pacific hub. Globalisation of cannabis continues, and we are present in relevant markets, with Asia-Pacific now added to our international footprint," Ward said.

"The Northern Territory provides Wayland with ideal climate conditions in a globally respected and sovereign country with a large and fast emerging market of over 250 million people just four hours north.

"This acquisition accelerates Wayland's growth strategy in becoming a truly global cannabis company."

The state's Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, has also confirmed that the NT government is in talks with the Wayland Group and Tropicann about being granted Major Project Status. This would be mean that the project is given priority Ministerial oversight to assist with co-ordination and facilitation and ensure timely project delivery. Gunner said that Wayland Group's plan fit with the state government's strategy to diversify the Northern Territory economy and create jobs.

"Medicinal cannabis is a growth industry for the Northern Territory, particularly after its legalisation by the Australian Government."

"This is a very real and exciting opportunity for the people of the Northern Territory to enter and participate in a new growth sector in the global economy," Gunner said.

Is Marijuana Legal in Queensland?

In October last year the first cannabis clinic in Queensland was opened by the Cannabis Access Clinic network. Although the private clinic is still required to seek government approval—which can take up to four weeks—before prescribing medicinal marijuana, its launch is part of a broader move to make the drug more accessible to patients

According to the medical director of Cannabis Access Clinics, Dr Sanjay Nijhawan, "the Queensland Department of Health has worked hard to streamline regulations and make access to treatment easier for patients in need."

"We are pleased to be able to extend our clinic network to Queensland," he said.

This clinic's launch was followed by an announcement from the Queensland government in November that it intends to increase patient access to medicinal cannabis by repealing laws that limit its prescription.

A spokesperson for the state government subsequently confirmed that the proposed changes would be tabled in the Queensland Parliament at some point in 2019.

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The state's Minister for Health, Steven Miles, said that the changes to the Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Act 2016 will bring Queensland up to date with other states that have taken a more proactive approach to the issue, such as Victoria and New South Wales.

"Our government is committed to improving pathways for Queensland patients to access medicinal cannabis and this new legislation joins some of the most progressive laws in the country," Miles said.

"This law change will significantly streamline the prescription process by removing state-level approval and will ensure patients have access to the treatment they need sooner. It will remove red tape for patients and doctors seeking access to medicinal cannabis treatment. It will also mean that visitors to Queensland who have a valid prescription for medicinal cannabis from another jurisdiction will no longer require a specific Queensland approval."

"This is about making it easier for patients and clinicians. These changes are designed to both help and protect patients."

At the same time, Asterion Cannabis Inc—a privately owned Canadian cannabis company—has been eyeing up the state. The company recently announced that it had signed on to a non-binding agreement to acquire approximately 90 hectares of farmland in South East Queensland for the production of medicinal cannabis.

When complete, the $10.6 million growing facility will have an annual capacity in excess of 500,000 kilograms, and become home to what the company claims will be the world's biggest cannabis greenhouse site, covering a 4.3 million square foot space.

Last month, Asterion's wholly-owned Australian subsidiary filed an application with the Office of Drug Control to obtain licences needed for the cultivation, production and research of medicinal cannabis. Once the research licenses are granted, the company intends to develop standard operating procedures for its research platform, and start research into techniques for clonal propagation.

Asterion Australia's growing facility will also make use of special plant tissue culture technology, eliminating the need for mother plants. The company claims that this will lead to lower costs, increased efficiency, and disease-free plantlets.

Is Marijuana Legal in South Australia?

When it comes to cannabis, South Australia appears to have a split personality.

In July last year the state government suffered a "humiliating" defeat after it was forced to backtrack on proposed legislation that would have increased cannabis possession penalties to a maximum fine of $2,000, and up to two years in prison. Following an intense public outcry, the SA attorney general, Vicki Chapman, backflipped on her previous stance, saying that jailing people for cannabis possession is clearly "not in line with the views of a significant portion of the community".

However, while the state government seems strongly opposed to recreational use, it's another story when it comes to medicinal cannabis. in November the state hosted The Future of Medicinal Cannabis symposium—organised by the medicinal cannabis company, LeafCann Group—which featured national and international speakers discussing the challenges currently facing the industry.

According to the CEO of LeafCann, Elisabetta Faenza, if South Australia takes advantage of the opportunities presented to it then it could eventually become a world leader in the sector.

"We expect the Australian medicinal cannabis market to be worth more than A$1 billion by 2025," Faenza said.

"Being able to lead in the production and the development of medicinal cannabis is somewhere that South Australia can really shine. Our vision is to establish South Australia as the centre of excellence for education, research, industry innovation and development for the global cannabis sector."

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Faenza also noted that SA's advanced research facilities could allow the state to move to the forefront of the industry, due to the sector's pressing need for further clinical trials of cannabis-based medicine.

"The ability of places like the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) to have collaborative research is a big advantage, this means that Adelaide could really take a lead not only in Australia but globally in the development of cannabis-based medicines," she said.

The South Australian Minister for Industry and Skills, David Pisoni—another keynote speaker at the symposium—was equally enthusiastic about the state's moneymaking potential.

"There is significant public interest and support for the medicinal use of cannabis and cannabis-derived products arising from reports of symptomatic benefit in a range of medical conditions," he said.

"The state government supports the development of this industry within the existing Commonwealth regulatory framework and licencing regime. It's not just about growing cannabis but more about South Australia being perfectly placed to engage in the sophisticated production, processing, manufacturing and commercialisation of a pharmaceutical-grade product.

"Our state has the right blend of strengths in advanced horticulture, research and specialised manufacturing to have a real competitive advantage in this space," Pisoni said.

Is Marijuana Legal in Tasmania?

While the rest of the country has begun to make progress when it comes to medical marijuana australia, Tasmania is still lagging behind. Although the state began granting patients access to the drug in September 2017—via the Controlled Access Scheme—as of November last year only seven patients have been prescribed medicinal cannabis products.

This is partly the result of poor patient access, as Tasmania has become the only Australian state that does not offer an online application system to streamline the prescription process. However, while the state's legislative landscape is continuing to lag behind, its population seems to be relatively progressive. A 2018 telephone poll of more than 1,100 Tasmanians found that 59 percent supported legalising recreational marijuana, while only 28 percent opposed it .

The idea has the support of Greens party leader, Richard Di Natale, who has said that he wants to see cannabis legalised for people over the age of 18.

"Prohibition has failed. Using cannabis remains illegal, but this has not stopped Australians from using it," Di Natale said.

"As a drug and alcohol doctor, I've seen that the 'tough on drugs' approach causes enormous harm. It drives people away from getting help when they need it and exposes them to a dangerous black market."

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While this may seem discouraging, Tasmanian Alkaloids—the largest opium poppy processing company in the state—is already moving into the research and development phase of medical cannabis production, and is expecting its first therapeutic crop within the next six months.

The company is also in the process designing a new facility specifically designed for cannabis production. The CEO of Tasmanian Alkaloids, Doug Blackaby, said that the medical marijuana australia grown at its Westbury cultivation site will be used in products to treat the five million Australians suffering from chronic pain.

""It's progressing in a positive direction. We envisage all growing activities needed will be conducted on site [at Westbury]. We still have exciting plans for our base business and we see this as complementary to that," Blackaby said.

"The opportunity is large, but the market is small."

As part of the company's move into the medicinal cannabis space, it has signed a partnership deal with Auscann—who will provide product distribution—to grow the drug for chronic pain medications.

"We are partnering with AusCann, who will provide technical and market access, and we will bring research and development, manufacturing and formulation," Blackaby said.

According to the managing director of Auscann, Elaine Darby, the partnership will allow the company to significantly increase its' market presence in Australia and internationally.

"It is a huge endorsement of cannabinoids going mainstream when the major alkaloid producers are moving into the space," Darby said.

"It clearly shows the pharmaceutical companies are searching for stable, high quality supply of cannabinoids to complement their opioid product range."

Is Marijuana Legal in Victoria?

The Victorian government has been at the forefront of the local industry's development and has heavily supported research initiatives for medicinal cannabis products. The state government currently has a targeted ambition to see 500 people employed in the industry as legal use continues to ramp up.

Victoria was also the first Australian state to legalise medical access for cannabis patients back in 2016. The Victorian Agricultural Minister, Jaclyn Symes, has been vocal in her support for the Andrews Government's long-term plan to make the state the cannabis capital of Australia.

"We are renowned for our agricultural products, but we are also a gateway to Asia. This is a very exciting industry. They are all moving here because they see the opportunity that is on our doorstep," Symes said.

"We're proud to be actively attracting investment in this ground-breaking industry that will not only improve the lives of patients around the world, but also create local jobs.''

Attracting industry investment is a major component of the state government's Medical Cannabis Industry Development Plan, which was unveiled last year. The plan outlines a strategy to grow Victoria's medicinal cannabis industry into an established agri-pharma sector, and would see half the country's legal marijuana supplied by the state by 2020.

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Multiple companies are already setting up shop in the state, such as the Althea Group, MediPharm Labs, Cann Group, and Cannvalate, which recently purchased 100 acres of farmland in south-east Melbourne. Cannvalate intends to use the site to create the largest cannabis cultivation hub in Australia, and will build several facilities on behalf of four international companies who have already committed to leasing them.

The CEO of Cannvalate, Dr Sud Agarwal, said that the purchase is part of a broader strategy that will see the frictionless entry of licensed global cannabis producers into the Australian market.

"After a number of months researching the market we secured a number of sites in Melbourne which we believe have all the key facets to meet the needs of cannabis cultivators to create over 200 jobs in the region," Agarwal said.

"Cannvalate will continue to work with global licensed providers to ensure they have full access to the Australian cannabis market, and assurance that all compliance, regulatory and license requirements are met."

The state is also beginning to attract international attention, and in January this year two Canadian companies announced plans to invest in Victoria's medicinal cannabis industry.

The news is another significant step in the state's plan to become the "medicinal cannabis hub of the southern hemisphere", and will lead to a slew of new jobs being created.

Cronos Australia—which is part of the much larger, Canada-based Cronos Group—has announced that the state will become the home of its Asia-Pacific headquarters, along with plans to construct a new state-of-the-art R&D centre and cultivation facility in Central Victoria. The company has said that it will establish the manufacturing and research facility over the next five years, and expects to create approximately 120 new jobs in the process.

At the same time, Cannatrek also announced a $30 million investment which will see an expansion of its' production and manufacturing activities in Victoria, which will also create up to 75 new jobs in the Shepparton region and at the Latrobe University.

According to the executive director of Cannatrek, Tommy Huppert, the regional Victorian climate is ideally suited for cannabis cultivation.

''Regional Victoria is blessed with abundant daylight, possessing the ideal climate for growing this valuable medicinal resource,'' he said.

''Cannatrek is grateful for the opportunity to pioneer this industry.''

Is Marijuana Legal in Western Australia?

While the Western Australian government has lagged behind other states, it is beginning to catch up. In December last year the state opened its first medicinal cannabis-centric doctors' clinic in Subiaco, which aims to streamline patient access by providing doctors with experiencing in the area.

The practice is another extension of the Cannabis Access Clinics network, which claims it boasts the "largest patient group in Australia".

The medical director of Cannabis Access Clinics, Dr Sanjay Nijhawan, said that the company is "pleased to be able to extend our clinic network to Western Australia".

The Western Australian Department of Health has worked hard to streamline regulations and make access to treatment easier for patients in need."

"We believe medicinal cannabis needs to be considered as part of the treatment regime for many patients. It is often not a stand-alone treatment and it is not a silver-bullet solution, but alongside conventional therapies, it can help patients suffering from chronic pain, nausea, seizures, anxiety, sleep disorders, eating disorders and a range of other conditions," Nijhawan said.

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In Western Australia medicinal cannabis products are still considered to be unapproved controlled drugs, meaning that they can only be prescribed with approval from the WA Department of Health and federal Therapeutic Goods Administration.

However, the Department of Health WA still claims that there is only limited evidence of a variable quality that supports the use of medicinal cannabis, indicating that some form of pushback is still present in the state.

The WA police are also similarly resistant to discussion on legalising the drug. In a submission last year to a Federal parliamentary inquiry into legalising cannabis, WA Assistant Commissioner Gary Budge argued that doing so would endanger motorists and "legitimise" crime syndicates, allowing them to generate "significant profits".

"The WA police force is of the view that the loosening of any restrictions on cannabis would have significant and far-reaching detrimental impacts on the community," Budge said.

"Counterparts at the United States of America Drug Enforcement Agency have advised in places where cannabis has been legalised, it has enabled organised crime networks to either legitimise their cannabis businesses and/or continue to sell cannabis on the unregulated black market, where it remains cheaper and avoids being subject to tax."

Rolling in the Green

Currently, the cannabis products that have been made available in the Australian market have been relatively limited, and have been mostly restricted to CBD oils and tinctures. Although doctors are becoming increasingly amenable to the prescription of medicinal cannabis products, it seems that they are still generally uneasy about the drug itself.

However, product innovation in the industry—such as the growing overseas edibles market—is still expected to be a significant driver of future business opportunities. This will ensure that there is always a strong market demand for Australian cannabis products, regardless of how the legislative environment evolves over the coming years.

While some states have been mulling over the possibility of further decriminalisation, the federal government would still need to get on board, meaning that it may be some time before Australia sees the complete legalisation of cannabis.

But there are still plenty of opportunities for local cannabis stocks to expand, both from international sales of Australian made medicinal products, and much needed research projects which are proving the viability of marijuana as a mainstream treatment option.

What remains to be seen is which state will emerge at the top of Australia's commercial cannabis heap.

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Hugo Gray
Hugo Gray

Hugo Gray is a Melbourne-based journalist with a body of work that covers a diverse range of topics, including immigration law, sex technology, and now the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

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