Australia struggles with moves to legalize cannabis use

Medical research focuses on patient benefits from drug still widely banned

SIAN POWELL, Contributing writer

Cannabis on display at the Hemp Health & Innovation Expo -- part of hemp crops owned and grown by Medical Cannabis (Courtesy of the 2017 Hemp Health & Innovation Expo & Symposium)

SYDNEY -- Australia is in the throes of allowing the medicinal use of cannabis, following the trail blazed by a number of U.S. states, as well as Canada, Israel and the Netherlands.

The moves to legalize what was widely seen as a forbidden drug highlight growing acknowledgement among scientific researchers that cannabis, or marijuana, could help with the treatment of many health conditions. Cannabis has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and research has suggested it can be useful in the treatment of Alzheimer's, arthritis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, cancer, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and diabetic nerve damage.

Yet there are huge variations in the legal status of cannabis in different nations. In certain U.S. states, the drug is legal for both medicinal and recreational use; in others, it is only for medicinal use, and in yet others it is completely illegal, as it is across Asia. Yet there is a growing social push for decriminalization in many Asian nations.

Thailand is flirting with the idea of decriminalization. Privy Counselor-General Paiboon Koomchaya in April told an international meeting on drug policy that Thailand had already softened its stance on narcotics. "Suppression, prevention and rehabilitation will remain, but we need to decriminalize drugs," he said, according to the Bangkok Post.

In the Philippines, amidst a savage, government-led war on drugs, a congressional committee on health has begun discussions on a bill to legalize medicinal cannabis, according to ABS-CBN News. China, meanwhile, has become a leading researcher on the medicinal use of cannabis, accounting for more than half of the patents filed globally last year, according to the South China Morning Post.

Dr. Jan Fizzell, who advises the New South Wales chief health officer on medical cannabis use, told the Nikkei Asian Review that there are two ways medical cannabis was being introduced around the world. The first is a largely unregulated general access model, such as the market in California, and the second is a form of registered medicine market, such as has been established in Israel. If medical cannabis products were introduced in Southeast Asian nations, it would most likely be via a registered medicine model, she noted.

Very early days

"I think we're at the very beginning, to some extent, of the journey towards cannabis as medicine," Fizzell said. "We're still in the very early days -- even though humans have been using these products for thousands of years. In think in 15 to 20 years' time we will be in a situation where we do understand more, where even some of the cannabinoids [the active constituents of cannabis] start being available on a very unrestricted basis as we understand more about them and their side-effects."

The tentative introduction of medicinal cannabis in Australia is proceeding towards a registered medicine model. Canberra passed legislation late last year to allow cannabis to be prescribed as a Schedule 8 drug (a category that includes a wide range of addictive drugs, including codeine, pethidine and morphine).

Although medicinal cannabis has already been introduced in many places in the world, there is a shortage of rigorous clinical and epidemiological research into its medical properties, according to Fizzell.