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Victorian law reform: Cannabis use in exceptional circumstances

Every Issue

Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.75

The VLRC is reviewing law reform options regarding the medicinal use of cannabis. 

The Victorian government made a commitment before the 2014 state election to allow cannabis to be used for medicinal purposes in exceptional circumstances, and to ask the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) to report on the options for regulatory reform. It aims to present a bill to Parliament by the end of 2015.

On 19 December 2014, the VLRC received a reference from the Attorney-General to report on options for changes to the law. Dr Ian Freckelton QC was subsequently appointed as a specialist commissioner to lead the review. The VLRC has released an issues paper and is seeking submissions.

First, the VLRC is addressing the question of how to define the exceptional circumstances in which people should be able to use cannabis for medicinal purposes. Second, it is identifying law reform options that will allow people to obtain and use cannabis safely while the cultivation, manufacture, supply and use of cannabis for other purposes generally remains prohibited.

Cannabis has a long history of use in the treatment of medical conditions. In the 19th century it was used to relieve muscle spasms, menstrual cramps, rheumatism and convulsions, to promote contractions in childbirth, and as a sedative. With the introduction of more effective synthetic drugs in the 20th century, and the increasing availability of opiates, cannabis fell out of favour.

Interest in the therapeutic benefits of cannabis grew in the 1980s when patients in the United States found it relieved some symptoms of HIV. However, scientific evidence regarding the medical effectiveness of cannabis remains incomplete. Some evidence suggests that cannabis products can reduce pain, nausea, loss of appetite, post-traumatic stress disorder, convulsions, epileptic fits and intra-ocular pressure.

Public debate about medicinal cannabis before the election focused on the reported benefits of cannabis in easing epileptic symptoms in severely ill children. There were also calls for reform in order to treat chronically and terminally ill adults.

Cases that have gained public attention present compassionate reasons for making medicinal cannabis available, and illustrate the types of conditions that exceptional circumstances may include, but any legislative change will need to rely on robust definitions. The distinction must be clear between people who are eligible to be authorised to use medicinal cannabis, and those who are not.

The VLRC has convened an advisory committee of experts in the therapeutic use of cannabis and current clinical research, and is consulting widely on how exceptional circumstances should be defined. The VLRC has also constituted an advisory committee of experts in effective regulation and the operation of current law and overseas reforms.

Identifying options for reform

There are many models from which Victoria’s medicinal cannabis scheme can be drawn. Among others, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic and a growing number of states in the US have introduced comparable laws. Their experience can assist in identifying regulatory tools, but it is important that regulatory reform in Victoria establishes a coherent scheme with clear objectives.

In allowing medicinal cannabis to be used in exceptional circumstances, the scheme needs to ensure continued prohibition in other circumstances. There is a risk that cannabis sourced for authorised users could find its way onto the illicit market, or that an unmet demand by newly authorised users will stimulate the illicit market unless the scheme adequately allows for a legal supply.

Victoria’s scheme should ensure that the cannabis supplied for medicinal purposes is safe and of good quality, and that patients have access to it in therapeutically appropriate forms and amounts that can be monitored by their doctors. It should also be responsive to advances in scientific knowledge.

The degree to which these policy objectives can be met by Victoria acting alone is circumscribed by the Commonwealth’s powers and functions in controlling the importation, manufacture and availability of cannabis and cannabinoid products nationally. Any sale of cannabis by trading corporations, the importation of cannabis, and the manufacture of cannabis products in Australia would be likely to require the participation of the Commonwealth.

The issues paper, including a description of the regulatory environment and questions about reform, is at www.lawreform.vic.gov.au. The closing date for submissions is 20 April 2015.

Contributed by the VICTORIAN LAW REFORM COMMISSION. For further information ph 8608 7800 or see www.lawreform.vic.gov.au.

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