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Talking Point: Lost in state of legal absurdity

We have not progressed very far, despite all the pledges by state and federal governments to show compassion by allowing the use of medical cannabis. Picture: ISTOCK IT IS a given that the wheels of government, like those of justice, grind exceedingly slow.

But really ... there is slow. And then there is the overcautious, vacillation and reticence which has marked the promised legalisation of medical cannabis.

The Federal Government announced with great fanfare last month that it would allow the controlled import of medical marijuana by “approved providers”.

And with equal enthusiasm, the Victorian Government boasted a week or so ago that it had begun importing a stock of cannabis oil to treat seriously ill children. Yet it was almost five years ago that I imported a supply of medical marijuana from the UK to treat my symptoms from multiple sclerosis. And I did so on the advice of my GP, who in turn had written permission from the federal health authorities. The import was done in the full knowledge and with the consent of Commonwealth Customs, which charged me hundreds of dollars in import duty to underline the point. But bizarrely, I was in breach of Tasmanian law under which it was (and is) illegal to import, possess or use cannabis in any form, which theoretically at least can result in a fine of thousands of dollars or even jail. So go figure. We have not progressed very far, despite all the pledges by state and federal governments to show compassion by allowing the use of medical cannabis by those who have demonstrated it can be a valuable means of relieving everything from epileptic seizures and cancer symptoms, to the pain and spasms that come with multiple sclerosis. The whole business is a legal and bureaucratic mess. It is not difficult to access medical cannabis — but it is not so easy to do so legally. Neither are there any controls on the quality or strength of black market cannabis oil. About a year ago Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise medical marijuana. Yet only in the past couple of weeks did the Victorian Government announce the first dose of legal cannabis oil, produced under controlled conditions and imported from Canada, had been given to a five-year-old girl to help relieve her constant seizures. It was also about a year ago that the Tasmanian Government announced it would establish a Controlled Access Scheme (CAS) to allow Tasmanians with serious conditions to use medical cannabis when prescribed by a specialist. Yet medical cannabis advocate senator Lisa Singh was told during an estimates committee hearing this month that no “authorised prescriber” of cannabis products has yet been appointed in Tasmania. Indeed, only 23 have been appointed in the whole of Australia, the vast majority are in NSW. Practically, we seem to be very little closer to allowing legal access to the drug than we were in 2014 when then prime minister Tony Abbott advocated legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes and said no further testing was needed because it had already been shown in other countries to be safe and effective. Mr Abbott is not necessarily the suppository of wisdom (to borrow his own terminology) on the issue. But if such an arch-conservative can bring himself to, unprompted, encourage the approval in Australia of the use of medical marijuana based on how commonly it is accepted in other countries as safe and effective, then it must give critics and sceptics cause to reconsider. The combobulation which is the law on marijuana was summarised succinctly by a Tasmanian Legislative Council committee which inquired into the use of medicinal cannabis. In 2014, the committee reported: “The current Tasmanian law does not reflect the reality that cannabis is a substance already widely in use as a form of pain relief, and as an antiemetic and a means to control other medical conditions, including rare forms of intractable epilepsy.” Or, in the words of Oliver Twist’s Mr Bumble: “the law is a ass — a idiot.” The Legislative Council committee, after taking hundreds of pages of evidence and submissions from 77 witnesses, recommended that the State Government legislate to immediately provide protection against criminal charges for those who use medicinal cannabis. The Government rejected the recommendation but — having been dragged kicking and screaming from outright opposition to any legalised use of cannabis in any form for any reason — gave an assurance that the police would “not seek to criminally pursue terminally ill users of cannabis”. Which was hardly reassuring given the Government’s ominous qualification that police are “obliged to enforce the law” when they discover cannabis, with prosecutions decided on a case-by-case basis. In other Australian jurisdictions where similar legal absurdities apply, police and politicians have used the written law to sanction citizens for use or production of cannabis as a medicinal product, even though it was assumed to be legally tolerated because of national trials and what was thought to be an informal amnesty on pot used as medicine. Unlike other common illegal drugs — particularly methamphetamine, or ice, which has become a national menace — marijuana is not a deadly concoction. Smoking pot is more likely to give you the giggles or the “munchies” or put you to sleep, than cause you to king-hit a stranger in the street. I can say from first-hand experience that not everyone who tries cannabis as a medicinal treatment — smoked, cooked in cookies, or as oil dripped under the tongue — will find it helpful. But there are, unquestionably, many — notably children with otherwise unresponsive epileptic seizures and those in pain with cancer or spasms from multiple sclerosis — who have discovered great benefit and relief from cannabis or cannabis extracts. It is better to make it available from production by reputable authorities that control the quality, strength, distribution, and price — and even tax it — rather than leave it to the risky uncertainties of criminalised drug dealing. Surely we can expect governments to act with greater effort, conviction and resolve than the dawdling apathy and indifference which has marked the pace of progress until now.

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