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Australia vs. Canada – A Cannabis Policy Comparison


When it comes to Cannabis and its use for medical purposes, Canada has been examining the issue in one form or another for at least 16 years. It has of course lead to the current Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) – with all of its promise and problems. Australia, on the other hand is now just beginning to think about what a policy regime would look like – and in their desire to “get it right” Australia is looking at Canada to derive some lessons learned.

Australia has a very unique opportunity to design a policy regime that can ignore the Canadian mistakes and avoid some of the rhetoric that has plagued the discussion and policy development while addressing the needs of patients and care givers.

Currently, there are two significant developments in Australia at the Federal and State levels which will set the framework for the country. In November of last year, the Australian Senate started examining a Private Member’s Bill that would create a specific regulator for medical cannabis. The Regulator would be responsible for formulating rules and monitoring compliance with those rules for licensing the production, manufacture, supply, use, experimental use and import and export of medicinal cannabis; and provides for a national system to regulate the cultivation, production and use of medicinal cannabis products, and related activities such as research.

Unlike Canada whereby the federal government has complete jurisdiction over the regulation and use of Cannabis, Australian States (like the US) can create their own systems and contribute to the national dialogue. What is not clear is whether the Federal Government will step in and attempt to force a national policy or prohibition. So far this has not occurred and various States have begun to approach the issue in different ways.

By creating a special regulator to deal with this unique plant, it would appear the Australian government has come up with an elegant policy solution that dedicates specific financial and human resources which does not play to the preconceived notions that cannabis is a plant with no merits whatsoever. As of August, the Bill has since emerged from the Senate Committee process and received all party support. Unfortunately, it is unclear as to when the Australian Parliament and the House of Representatives will actually get to vote on the Bill.

However, unlike Canada whereby the federal government has complete jurisdiction over the regulation and use of Cannabis, Australian States (like the US) can create their own systems and contribute to the national dialogue. What is not clear is whether the Federal Government will step in and attempt to force a national policy or prohibition. So far this has not occurred and various States have begun to approach the issue in different ways.

I’ve seen first-hand how medicinal cannabis can change people’s lives. This landmark reform means Victorian families will no longer have to decide between breaking the law and watching their child suffer.”  ~Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Most notable is Victoria in which the Government asked the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) to examine and provide options for legislative change to allow people to be treated with medical cannabis in exceptional circumstances. The VLRC completed their report and on October 6 of this year the Victorian Government released it to the public. The Government stated they: “….will legalise access to locally manufactured medicinal cannabis products for use in exceptional circumstances from 2017.”  

The Victorian Government fully accepts 40 of the VLRC’s recommendations and accepts two recommendations in principle. However, there are two problematic issues in their methods that Canada has already dealt with.

The first one is the requirement that two medical practitioners must “sign off” on the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Canada had such a rule at one time but quickly changed it as it was found to be an unnecessary burden for patients and physicians. Advocates also repeatedly made the comparison that it only requires one physician to prescribe an opioid. 

The second issue is that cannabis will only be approved for certain conditions and symptoms. This narrow approach was at first adopted by Health Canada but was soon changed as this issue was challenged in the legal system. It does seem as if the Victorian Government recognizes the potential problem of such a narrow scheme and has committed: “…to establish an independent medical advisory committee on medicinal cannabis which will provide advice about expanding eligibility to further patient groups.”   

Overall, the model for Victoria appears to be very positive in creating a responsive and responsible regime. The reason for the optimism; it is refreshing to hear a government leader recognize there is merit in the use of cannabis for medical purposes. In his press release Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews mentioned: “I’ve seen first-hand how medicinal cannabis can change people’s lives. This landmark reform means Victorian families will no longer have to decide between breaking the law and watching their child suffer.”  

And the Victoria Minister for Health Jill Hennessy has made the point: “Victoria is leading the way on legalising medicinal cannabis because we know the difference it can make to a patient’s quality of life, and because we know the evidence is growing in support of it as a treatment option in exceptional circumstances.”

While Australia is just beginning to debate and discuss possible models, it appears that country is beginning a process that will see sound policy making and decisions based on scientific evidence as opposed to simply rhetoric. If this keeps up, expect to see Australia eclipse Canada in the very near future.

When you compare these attitudes to Canadian officials, the differences are evident. Health Canada clearly states on its website: “The Government of Canada does not endorse the use of marijuana, but the courts have required reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana when authorized by a healthcare practitioner.”

Prime Minister Harper has voiced his opinion that: “Tobacco is a product that does a lot of damage. Marijuana is infinitely worse and it’s something that we do not want to encourage,” while Health Minister Rona Ambrose has expressed her disappointment with the Supreme Court of Canada decision that expands the definition of medical cannabis beyond dried leaves: “So frankly, I’m outraged by the Supreme Court.”

With the MMPR, Canada has a system in place that does provide Cannabis for medical purposes to those who require it. And on the surface it would appear that we are well and truly ahead of Australia. However, while Australia is just beginning to debate and discuss possible models, it appears that country is beginning a process that will see sound policy making and decisions based on scientific evidence as opposed to simply rhetoric. If this keeps up, expect to see Australia eclipse Canada in the very near future.  

Featured Image: Inside Broken Coast’s Vancouver Island facility.

~Ivan Ross Vrána

Mr. Vrána is the founder of Aslan Ross Consulting – a firm that assists corporations and non-for-profit organizations in their interactions with provincial and federal governments. Previously Mr. Vrána worked for the Federal Government for over 15 years. He worked at the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, Finance Canada and in various senior policy positions at Health Canada. At Health Canada he was in charge of the team that developed the policy rationale which led to the implementation of the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations.  

Between 2006 and 2008 Mr. Vrána took a sabbatical from the federal government and worked at Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical companies as the Director of Government Affairs. Since 2007 Mr. Vrána is also a regular Lecturer at both Carleton and Concordia universities and teaches a course that examines the internal communication tools governments use to development and implement public policy.

The post Australia vs. Canada – A Cannabis Policy Comparison appeared first on Lift Cannabis News Magazine.

Lift Cannabis News Magazine


October 13, 2015
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