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THE announcement made by Assistant Health Minister, Meegan Fitzharris, on the introduction of a medicinal cannabis scheme is long overdue.
It is interesting that the pronouncement was made by her rather than Health Minister Simon Corbell, who is not standing at the next election.
The issue of making cannabis available for the seriously ill and dying people has been a matter for consideration in the ACT since the early days of the Legislative Assembly.
Most recently, legislation was tabled by Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury and considered by a Legislative Assembly committee. His approach was rejected by the committee in favour of waiting for changes to be made by the Federal Government.
In 2011, Amanda Bresnan, the then-Greens MLA, led on the issue asking a series of questions of then-Health Minister (now Senator) Katy Gallagher.
The questions followed work that had been commissioned by her Greens predecessor Kerrie Tucker, who in 2004 tabled a Bill to allow medicinal cannabis. Rattenbury’s Bill is largely in line with Tucker’s.
A decade earlier than the first Greens’ Bill, an amendment to the Drugs of Dependence Act on medicinal cannabis, successfully passed the Legislative Assembly in November, 1994, although it was opposed by Labor. This was my legislation.
Just a week later the legislation was recalled and defeated following a change of heart by the Liberal MLAs. The “offending” legislation attempted to develop a strong research framework by avoiding issues of growing and supply.
It stated: “Proceedings do not lie against a person in respect of the alleged commission of a simple cannabis offence if a medical practitioner engaged in medical research has certified in writing that the use of cannabis… is appropriate for the treatment of a physical or mental condition.”
Ms Fitzharris described her proposed new scheme as a “considered and consistent framework to support a medicinal cannabis scheme in the ACT as a priority for the ACT government, but we need to do it in a way that is evidence-based and that supports people when they are at their most vulnerable”.
In 1994 the rejected legislation was consistent with Labor Party policy of the time. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that none of the current Labor MLAs were in that Assembly.
Why did it take more than two decades? Ms Fitzharris attempted to explain by referring to changes at the Federal level stating: “Now the Commonwealth has acted, we can establish a scheme in the ACT that will treat medicinal cannabis products in the same manner as we treat other medicines”.
The Commonwealth’s Therapeutic Good Administration recently rescheduled cannabis from a prohibited substance to a controlled drug.
This provides yet another example of the major parties being happy to be followers rather than demonstrating leadership even on their own policies.
Ms Fitzharris made the announcement just a few months away from the ACT election while concurrently explaining the change cannot be achieved in a tight timeframe.
The approach allows the government to take credit before the election without having to wear any flak associated with anomalies that may arise in the introduction of the scheme that could be blown out of proportion in an election environment.
“At the moment, there are no clinical guidelines on what types of conditions medicinal cannabis can and should be prescribed for,” she explained.
“The ACT government will develop evidence-based guidelines to inform and support medical practitioners in how to best prescribe medicinal cannabis products”.
The Victorian government is already well under way with making medicinal cannabis available in its jurisdiction. The ACT government has cleverly carved out an area of difference with the minister outlining: “The ACT’s scheme will work to establish the ACT as a leader in the research and development of cannabis products here in Australia and develop a framework for the prescription, use and distribution of medicinal cannabis to those who need them on medical grounds”.
It is now more than two decades. Better late than never. People who suffer from symptoms associated with cancer or chronic pain have already waited far too long.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.