3 ways Australian cannabis will change in 2017

When people ask me what the outlook for medicinal cannabis in Australia is, my usual response is ‘cautiously optimistic’.

Cautious because I know how slowly things can move, and how long it’s taken us to get to where we are. Optimistic because it’s only been a year since the Federal legislation was passed.

So, in the spirit of cautious optimism, here are three significant changes that are likely to happen in Australia this year.

1. Patient access expansion

Some States do patient access better than others. The Queensland Government has provided a non-exhaustive list of the several conditions and symptoms they believe may benefit from medicinal cannabis. Victoria, on the other hand, has limited access to medicinal cannabis to people under the age of 18 who have intractable, severe epilepsy.

Victoria has championed medicinal cannabis for such a long time that it seems likely they will work to expand patient access this year. As the expert advisory panels of the various States and Territories come online, the momentum for expansion will build alongside the growing body of medical scientific evidence.

TGA access may also be expanded: at the moment, patients who are ‘seriously ill with a condition from which death is reasonably likely to occur within a matter of months’ are prohibited from accessing medicinal cannabis through the fast-tracked ‘Special Access Scheme Category A’ process. They are instead forced to use the more heavily regulated and restricted ‘Category B’ process. No other Schedule 8 (THC) or Schedule 4 (CBD) medicines are prohibited in this way.

The fight to change this is being taken to the Federal Parliament by the Greens. Debate in the Senate has been postponed until the 11th of May 2017 due to a lack of support from other parties. Although I couldn’t guess at the likelihood of its success, if Labor and the cross bench supported the rights of the terminally ill to access medicine, it is possible this prohibition could be overturned.

Importing medicinal cannabis through Category A would still require a license and permit from Customs, but with domestic supply up and running, this would greatly expand patient access.

2. Cannabis in food

Food Standards Australia & New Zealand are currently working out if – and how – cannabis might be allowed as a food ingredient. If they rule in favour of a change in regulation (decision due in April 2017), this would be a huge boost to both the cannabis and hemp industries.

You might be thinking, ‘but isn’t there a massive regulatory firewall between hemp and medicinal cannabis?’. And you’d be right … but that doesn’t mean they’re different plants. And whatever success the hemp industry achieves may translate into positive spillovers for the medicinal cannabis industry.

More money would be put into research, genetics, seed banks, horticultural equipment etc. More businesses with connections to international hemp industries would emerge – many of which would come from jurisdictions that don’t have such rigid distinctions between hemp and medicinal cannabis. And more cannabis-based nutritional supplements, beauty products, clothes and construction equipment would become available, further normalising the cannabis plant.

3. Industry growth and coordination

Since November 2016 there have been two Federal licenses issued in Australia – one for research cultivation and one for commercial cultivation and production, both attained by CANN Group. By the end of the year, we’ll likely see another 5-10 licenses issued, and a few permits as well. As the ODC gets more experienced in running their shop, the speed and confidence with which they do their job will accelerate, and the processing times for licenses and permits will shorten.

More licensed cannabis firms will mean more companies with a vested interest in the expansion of patient access and the streamlining of regulatory hurdles. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the major cannabis corporations will use their clout to keep the barriers to market entry high in order to discourage competition, but they’ll still have the dedicated and increasingly sophisticated patient advocacy groups to contend with. Not to mention the mid-sized players that will come out of the woodwork in the next few months.

Greater industry coordination can also be expected this year. Several not-for-profits, industry networking groups and peak bodies have either already emerged or are about to be announced. Communication and cooperation are absolutely essential for industry success, and the more people collaborate, the more they’ll realise that the goals of patients, advocates and businesses are very closely aligned.

This will translate into more effective and efficient political lobbying at both the international, Federal and State/Territory levels, supporting patient access, industry growth, international trade and medical scientific research and education.