Marijuana (also known as cannabis and by several other names) has been used throughout most of recorded history for medicinal, spiritual and recreational purposes, and as a source of industrial fibre, seed oil and food. The Cannabis sativa plant from which marijuana is sourced has three main cultivars used today for different applications each with different levels of the psychoactive, mind altering part tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as well as many other cannabinoids and extracts.

The recreational use of cannabis is not legalised in most countries worldwide but a policy of decriminalisation is adopted by many to make simple possession a non-criminal offence for small quantities. However, the status quo is being challenged by changing community attitudes, new scientific data and new clinical trial data reporting safe uses of several derivatives from the cannabis plant in various human maladies. Those changing attitudes may be expected to accelerate further with the spotlight firmly thrown on Canada last week after it legalised the recreational use of marijuana. In addition, new uses of the non-psychoactive extracts of the cannabis plant are finding new opportunities in the treatment of a wide range of medical problems.

In Australia, the cultivation, manufacture and access to marijuana is regulated by Federal and State laws, and by multiple regulators within the Department of Health – Office of Drug Control (ODC) and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The Australian Federal Government has sole responsibility for regulating the cultivation and production aspects of cannabis for medicinal and related scientific purposes. Manufacture of, and patient access to, medicinal cannabis products is however a joint responsibility of the Australian Government and the states and territories. In addition, Australia has international obligations under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961. This means that Australia must ensure that the risk of diversion of narcotic drugs (such as cannabis) is minimised and that the use of cannabis is strictly reserved for medical and scientific purposes only.

Since 2016, it has been possible to legally cultivate medicinal cannabis in Australia under the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 (Cth). However, the cultivation of cannabis remains a serious criminal offence in all states and territories, unless it is done under very tight controls and for medicinal use only under the Federal licencing scheme. In order to obtain a licence, a person must also show that they are a fit and proper person, that they have not committed a serious offence in the last 10 years, and that they will take all necessary steps to ensure the physical security of the cannabis including being able to demonstrate suitable location, facilities and proposed security arrangements for the cultivation activities.

In Queensland, penalties for the unlawful possession, production, supply or trafficking of a dangerous drug (including cannabis) are regulated under the Drugs Misuse Act 1986 (Qld) and carry a maximum custodial sentence of 20 years imprisonment for cultivation of more than 500 grams or 100 plants, although charges involving growing a small amount of cannabis for personal use (be it recreational or medical use), may be dealt with by way of a fine or community based order. Despite its legal status, some authors have reported that over 100,000 people use marijuana recreationally in Australia.

However, access to and use of marijuana in Queensland for certain medical purposes is somewhat less restrictive with the passing of the Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Act 2016 (Qld) following the rescheduling of some forms of cannabis as an S8 drug. Under that legislative scheme, applications for the treatment of a patient with medicinal cannabis products and for the management of this treatment may be made via three routes in Queensland:

  • Prescription by a medical specialist who is registered by the TGA to prescribe medicinal cannabis products for recognised classes of patients;
  • Prescription by your doctor who must seek individual approval with the TGA to prescribe a cannabis product to you;
  • Participate in a clinical trial (if you meet the criteria).

There is currently only one medicinal cannabis product which is approved for use in Australia, meaning that patients requiring other products which must be imported will have to obtain approvals from TGA and the Queensland Department of Health prior to these products being prescribed under one of the three access mechanisms above.

Despite these changes to the law, very limited use of marijuana has been achieved in Australia even for medical indications with supporting clinical data. However, this situation may change following the United Nations launching its first ever review of marijuana’s classification under international drug treaties since they were first ratified in 1961. The move comes after the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) announced after a pre-review reported that cannabidiol (CBD) does not need to be regulated and controlled under international agreements based on the relevant evidence and that there was enough evidence to pursue a more thorough review. That Critical Review by the UN is scheduled for November 2018 and will analyse the chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, epidemiology and therapeutic use of CBD, THC, other cannabis extracts, and whole of plant cannabis.

Should that UN Critical Review follow the initial WHO findings, then it is likely that the status of marijuana (or extracts such as CBD) under international treaties would change its scheduling and would trigger similar reviews under domestic legislation worldwide.

Should that come to bear, the commercial interest in cultivating cannabis and manufacturing purified extracts and tinctures for a range of applications might be expected to accelerate further with burgeoning demand and a significant potential market evident. It will be interesting to monitor the progress of the ASX listed cannabis stocks (which numbered 28 at the date of writing) in light of the evolving legal landscape and community attitudes.