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Editorial

ACT government lost opportunity to reap economic harvest from medical marijuana

This week, the Turnbull government tabled legislation that will allow farmers to grow cannabis for medical use, and allow businesses to manufacture cannabidiol – a potentially effective painkiller – from those plants. If passed, the draft laws will ensure these suppliers meet strict licensing requirements and minimise the risk of the plants being used or sold unlawfully. In effect, the legislation will establish a regulated national market for a drug that has shown some promise in relieving chronic pain, and might also help suppress epileptic seizures and psychotic episodes.

This breakthrough was years in the making. Not all medical professionals are yet convinced of cannabidiol's benefits but, importantly, the legislation will move treatment decisions out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of doctors.

Medicinal cannabis is being legalised in various parts of Australia.
Medicinal cannabis is being legalised in various parts of Australia. Photo: Max Mason Hubers

It's surprising this consensus could not be reached sooner. For years, patients, as well as some doctors and law-enforcement officials, urged governments to legalise, or at least decriminalise, the medical use of marijuana. Yet most political leaders baulked at the idea, no doubt fearful of being unable to explain effectively the differences between beneficial extracts from cannabis and the plant's unlawful use. Cannabis has long been associated with crime and, more recently, mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The resulting, long-standing reluctance to alter the law encouraged thousands of Australians who suffer profound pain – such as those with terminal cancer, HIV/AIDS or multiple sclerosis – to break the law by growing or buying marijuana to suppress their symptoms. About one in seven chronic-pain sufferers are believed to use marijuana illegally.

It took the courage of two premiers, NSW's Mike Baird (a Liberal) and Victoria's Daniel Andrews (Labor), to break the deadlock. Both leaders recently authorised trials of cannabidiol. Mr Andrews said last year: "The time has come for us to stop finding reasons not to do this, and instead drag this law into the 21st century." Queensland's Labor government has since joined the trials. The Greens have long supported these reforms in every jurisdiction.

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We might also have been praising the ACT Labor government; it certainly had ample opportunity to lead the nation. Yet it failed for more than a decade to act. In 2005, in response to an Assembly inquiry's recommendation to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of marijuana for medical use, the then Stanhope government committed to "examine the issue ... further". At the time, the Greens pointed out there were no legal barriers to setting up a medical cannabis program, including cultivation and supply, in Canberra. All that was needed was for the government to seek permission from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It didn't ask.

The ACT Labor and Liberal parties again took the risk-averse option last year, using their control of another Assembly inquiry to recommend against creating a medical marijuana scheme. Instead, the inquiry advised waiting for the federal government to do so.

Now the Turnbull government has done so, it is likely too late for the ACT to reap any economic benefits. It had the opportunity, well before other states or territories, to establish an industry with the potential to supply pharmaceutical-grade cannabis for the entire country. Alas.