Greens Minister Shane Rattenbury proposes medical marijuana scheme in Canberra
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Greens Minister Shane Rattenbury proposes medical marijuana scheme in Canberra

A bold plan to make Canberra the medical marijuana capital of Australia is the latest proposal from Greens Minister Shane Rattenbury, as he looks to replicate the economic benefits to Tasmania from the controlled poppy industry.

A Legislative Assembly inquiry is currently holding public hearings into a medical cannabis scheme proposed by Mr Rattenbury, whereby terminally and chronically ill Canberrans could have access to the drug to ease pain and suffering.

In his latest contribution to the debate, the ACT Greens balance-of-power member told the inquiry the ACT should explore creating a local cannabis industry, with government licensing and regulation allowing legitimate businesses to produce cannabis for scientific and medical purposes.

Under the plan, the territory could move to develop a cannabis monopoly, in line with the $120 million Tasmanian poppy industry. Poppy growth was first allowed by the state and federal governments in Tasmania in the 1970s, in an attempt to keep opium production away from major population centres and illicit drug markets.

"Australian companies are already seeking to establish these businesses in Australia but have encountered regulatory difficulties and a lack of support from governments," Mr Rattenbury told the inquiry.

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"The ACT Government should explore the benefits that these businesses could bring to our jurisdiction, as well as the safeguards and conditions that would be necessary to ensure they operate safely and appropriately."

The move would allow businesses producing pharmaceutical grade cannabis for medical or scientific purposes to bring their economic activity to Canberra from outside of Australia.

As NSW plans a Commonwealth-backed national trial, Mr Rattenbury said local businesses would be well placed to supply cannabis to jurisdictions nationwide.

"By supporting these businesses, the ACT would be well placed economically, as well as well placed to source medicinal cannabis for its own scheme."

Mr Rattenbury's submission, separate from the ACT Government's, also warns waiting for the completion of clinical trials and approval from the Commonwealth Therapeutic Goods Administration is likely to take many years, leaving suffers without access to cannabis. Citing a similar push in 2004, he argues the ACT should move ahead to a basic system permitting those in most need to access cannabis without "criminal stigma".

"There is also a good chance that there will be no action on medicinal cannabis; that there will not be appropriate cooperation or efforts across the various jurisdictions," he said.

"This has been the history so far in Australia and it has already left us many years behind other countries, which now have well developed schemes to allow people to access medicinal cannabis."

Mr Rattenbury also called on the ACT Government to immediately seek a federal exemption from restrictions on the import and supply of cannabis to bring cannabis from countries including the Netherlands.

The committee's public hearings are expected to hear move evidence from individuals and organisations later this month ahead of a June report to the Assembly.

Health Minister Simon Corbell used the government's submission to the inquiry to warn of public safety and law enforcement problems with the proposed scheme.

Palliative Care Australia chief executive Liz Callaghan said Australians with specific symptoms should have access to medical cannabis.

"In the right circumstances, with the right evidence to support it we believe medicinal cannabis could help people in pain where other medicines have not been successful," she said.

"It's important we have this debate in Australia. The issue has been raised and dismissed many times. We support an open discussion on this issue."

Ms Callaghan said establishing an evidence base for the use of an illegal drug in a medical situation is vital to employing it to help patients.

"We cannot underestimate the power of pain to limit a person's enjoyment of their life. It can be debilitating, impacting psychological, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.

"PCA supports the use of medicinal cannabis for patients for whom other therapies have not been effective or where the treating medical professional believes it is the most suitable evidence-based therapy." she said.

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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