Cannabis is currently a prohibited drug in all Australian jurisdictions, which has implications for people wanting to use the drug for medical reasons.
Although the decriminalisation of cannabis for medical use has been debated on and off over the years, support for decriminalisation appears to have taken a recent leap forward.
In the ACT, a bill to amend the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1966 to allow for the medical use of cannabis and the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 to decriminalise the supply of cannabis under certain circumstances was proposed in March, although it wasn’t successful.
In May, NSW Premier Mike Baird indicated that he would be open to supporting a bill to decriminalise cannabis for medical use in the state on the condition that certain issues were resolved.
There has been a large amount of recent media attention around the possible decriminalisation of cannabis, mainly due to the publicity surrounding NSW resident Dan Haslam.
Mr Haslam has terminal cancer and is campaigning for cannabis to be legalised for medical purposes, as he has been using it illegally to relieve the nausea associated with chemotherapy.
Nationals MP for Tamworth Kevin Anderson is expected to draft a bill, due to be introduced to NSW Parliament this month, which would allow Mr Haslam and others in similar circumstances to legally use cannabis for pain relief and other medical reasons.
What is the current legal status of cannabis within Australia?
Cannabis is currently classified as a prohibited plant across all states in Australia.
In some states, the possession of small amounts of cannabis can be dealt with by a fine (in the ACT, SA and the NT), or through diversionary programs like the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme in NSW.
This is an alternative to criminal penalisation.
It is currently a criminal offence to manufacture, grow and supply cannabis within Australia and to import it from overseas.
Growing marijuana, importing it or selling it to someone for medical or any other purposes is likely to result in a criminal conviction and potential imprisonment.
What are the main arguments for decriminalisation of cannabis?
Those who argue in favour of decriminalisation of cannabis for medical reasons often cite evidence of its efficacy in relieving pain, reducing nausea and stimulating appetite.
It is also believed that cannabis can alleviate many symptoms that are associated with multiple sclerosis and a number of other neurological conditions.
Although a number of people are reportedly taking cannabis for medical conditions, the lack of supervision or regulation around its use means that it can be difficult for patients to get a consistent regular supply.
If patients decide to grow it themselves for their own use, they can risk prosecution for drug manufacture and supply offences.
Because the quality and strength of cannabis varies between suppliers and there is no medical regulation, it is impossible for cannabis users to know how much they should be taking or to have any consistency in their dosage.
Reviews of cannabis used medicinally in a controlled manner have demonstrated that there are very few side effects and the risk of dependence is very low.
But with the lack of regulation and control around the supply of cannabis, it is difficult for patients to regulate or control their dosage, which could leave them more vulnerable to issues of dependence or side effects from overuse.
What are the main arguments against decriminalisation?
The main argument which NSW and other state governments have put forward against decriminalising cannabis for medical purposes concerns the issues of supply and manufacture.
According to the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act (1995) it is a criminal offence to manufacture and supply cannabis in Australia.
Other legislation including the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations Act makes it a criminal offence to import cannabis from overseas.
Decriminalising cannabis for medical use would lead to the need for changes to a number of different forms of legislation and this could lead to complex legal issues around trafficking and drug manufacture.
Even if people were legally allowed to use cannabis for medical reasons, there would continue to be legal issues around where they would be able to get it from.
This is further complicated by the need for quality control and consistency in supply. NSW Premier Mike Baird has suggested that if these issues can be solved, he would potentially be willing to support the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Decriminalisation of cannabis for medical use may still be a way off but it would seem that it may be a possibility in the future, and this could lead to a reduction in people receiving criminal convictions for growing and possessing cannabis for medically-approved reasons.
It would also prevent good, honest people from being classified as ‘criminals’ for simply smoking or growing a plant that is not linked to violent offending in the same way as legally available alcohol.