| This briefing paper outlines the health benefits and detriments of cannabis use; summarises medical cannabis laws and programs operating in a range of overseas jurisdictions; and traces the development of a proposal to authorise the medical use of cannabis in New South Wales.|
- Preliminary issues (pages 2-5): Cannabis-related terminology is explained, from the basic question of the difference between ‘cannabis’ and ‘marijuana’, to the chemical composition of cannabis. Different methods of administering cannabis are then described, including smoking, eating, synthetic capsules, sub-lingual spray, and inhaling through a nebuliser, with some remarks on the advantages and disadvantages of each method.
- Health effects of cannabis use (pages 6-13): There is evidence that herbal cannabis relieves the symptoms of: nausea experienced in cancer treatments; AIDS-related wasting; glaucoma; muscle spasms suffered in multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries; and chronic pain associated with other medical conditions. However, sustained cannabis use can impair memory, attention, and psychomotor skills, while smoking cannabis magnifies the risk of bronchial and respiratory problems and cancers of the lungs, oesophagus and mouth. There is also increasing evidence of a connection between cannabis use and mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.
- New South Wales (pages 14-21): The Premier of New South Wales, Hon Bob Carr MP, has indicated his support for enabling cannabis to be legally available to patients suffering from serious illnesses. A Working Party on the Use of Cannabis for Medical Purposes completed a report in 2000, recommending that a trial be conducted. In May 2003, the Premier outlined some key elements of the plan, including the formation of an Office of Medicinal Cannabis, and stated that a draft exposure bill would be introduced at the earliest opportunity. Although the Carr Government has continued to affirm its support for the project, no further announcements have been made since May 2004. This chapter also outlines the Commonwealth requirements that New South Wales would have to meet if marijuana or cannabis medicines were to be imported from overseas.
- Netherlands (pages 22-24): Dutch policy has been relatively tolerant towards cannabis possession for personal use since the 1970s, including allowing it to be easily purchased from cannabis ‘coffee shops’. This may have reduced the need to make specific laws authorising the use of medical cannabis. However, in 2003 the Netherlands became the first country to legalise cannabis on prescription for people suffering from serious illnesses. Patients who have a doctor’s prescription can buy 5 grams of dried marijuana from pharmacies. The Office of Medicinal Cannabis in the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, licenses selected companies to grow cannabis on its behalf under strict conditions, and retains responsibility for distributing the product to pharmacies and hospitals.
- Canada (pages 25-32): The Canadian Government began granting permits to individuals in 1999 to possess and cultivate cannabis for medicinal purposes. After the courts ruled that there were some constitutional deficiencies with the system, the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations were introduced in 2001. The Office of Cannabis Medical Access, in Health Canada, administers the scheme. Applicants must provide a statement from a medical practitioner or specialist (depending on the type of illness) to obtain an Authorization to Possess a maximum of 30 days’ supply of dried marijuana. Patients have three lawful sources of marijuana: gaining a licence to grow their own cannabis plants; arranging a designated person to be licensed to grow cannabis for them; or obtaining dried marijuana from Health Canada, which has licensed a company to cultivate cannabis on its behalf. An additional, unofficial channel of supply is through cannabis clubs and societies.
- United States of America (pages 33-53): Unlike Canada’s national program, there is no Federal approval of medical cannabis in the United States. A number of individual States have introduced their own medical cannabis laws, beginning with California in 1996, and most recently Vermont in 2004. None of the States supply marijuana to patients, instead allowing them to possess a certain quantity of dried marijuana and cannabis plants, acquired by their own means. These laws give patients, caregivers and doctors protection from State penalties, but some participants have been prosecuted and even imprisoned for contravening the Federal Controlled Substances Act. The latest constitutional challenge to the Federal Government’s exercise of power in overriding State medical cannabis laws (Raich v Ashcroft) has been accepted for hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court.
- United Kingdom (pages 54-58): In the late 1990s, the British Medical Association and the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology expressed support for the therapeutic use of cannabis. The United Kingdom does not have a specific medical cannabis program but has been active in conducting clinical trials. A company named GW Pharmaceuticals developed an oral cannabis spray and applied for regulatory approval in 2003. A decision has not yet been made by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.