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Cannabis imports grow as local farmers wrangle with red tape

Barnaby Joyce said in April that importing cannabis that could be grown by Australian farmers would be "an absolute travesty".

It's a crop so easy to grow that it's nickname is "weed" but there are concerns Australian farmers could lose out to overseas cannabis farmers because of the tangle of red tape around the production of medical marijuana.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has been accused of backing away from his pre-election comments in April that importing cannabis that could be grown by Australian farmers would be "an absolute travesty".

Biotechnology trade publication Biotech Daily declared 2016 the year of medical marijuana with several Australian companies including MMJ Phytotech, Medlab Clinical, and Cellmid listing on the Australian Stock Exchange in preparation for the introduction of medical cannabis in Australia.

But several of the businesses announced they will be importing cannabis to Australia for medical research, including the unlisted Auscann headed by former federal Liberal MP Mal Washer.

In early December, Ecofibre - backed by businessman and high-profile medical cannabis advocate Barry Lambert - announced it would stop production from a large property in the Hunter Valley in NSW and move to the US where the legal and regulatory framework was better and medicinal cannabis was declared legal in more than 30 US states.

"Barnaby Joyce, appears to have backed away from his bold April assertion that Australia would never import a crop that Australian farmers - and the Victorian Government - could grow, with a media officer telling Biotech Daily that any inquiries about importing foreign marijuana should be directed to the Federal Department of Health," Biotech Daily editor David Langsam said, of his several attempts to clarify Australia's position on cannabis imports.

Mr Joyce, visiting a possible trial site farm in his electorate near Tamworth, New South Wales on April 15, 2016, said Australian farmers had the expertise to be "at the forefront of this industry".

"I believe that it would be an absolute travesty … if we find out that the fruits of our labor are only to be recognised in the importation of a product from another country … so the beneficiary of this are farmers somewhere else," Mr Joyce said at the time.

National Farmers' Federation President Fiona Simson said it was a concern if the red tape and delay involved in the administering of medical cannabis to patients resulted in Australian farmers missing out on the booming new industry.

"It's something that has been on our radar for a while since discussions began," Ms Simson said.

"We would be very concerned if cannabis was to be brought into Australia without Australian farmers having the opportunity to grow it."

She said Australian farmers had shown they could grow specialised crops like hemp and opium while providing the security, tracking and quality needed to supply the raw material.

"If and when the regulatory arrangements around the administering of the drug to patients is sorted out and we're allowed to grow it, Australian farmers are ready, waiting and keen to grow it," she said.

"I've got no doubt at all that Australian farmers are able to fill the gap."

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