Australia’s most prolific illicit drug, cannabis first obtained its bad reputation in the 1970’s when its use became widespread across the nation.
The marijuana leaf became a symbol of popular culture and by the 1990’s its recreational use was largely associated with youth culture also.
According to the Australia Department of Health one third of Australians (6.5 million) have tried the drug at least once in their lifetime. About one in 10 have used it in the past year and of those, 16 per cent of people said they used it every day.
But over the decades, most medical research has found that cannabis use can lead to schizophrenia, respiratory problems and cognitive impairment.
Its therapeutic affects are also well documented and in the shadows of its unsavoury reputation, the debate for legalising medicinal cannabis has been bubbling along.
But it seems that NSW is ready to have an educated debate about the merits of medicinal cannabis.
Last year a NSW parliamentary inquiry found that medicinal cannabis does have a place in society and last week, NSW Premier Mike Baird gave Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson the green light to prepare a bill legalising medicinal cannabis.
“The Premier was sympathetic and listened intently while I explained the issue to him and the circumstances surrounding my decision to try and change the laws,” Mr Anderson said.
“However the Premier joined with me in expressing grave concerns about the supply and the prescription of cannabis and the challenge in addressing those issues. It would need to be through a tightly controlled and regulated process.”
Mr Baird said he would consider the bill carefully.
“I support the efforts of any Liberals and Nationals member who wishes to prepare a bill for consideration by the Government. We will give careful consideration to Mr Anderson’s bill,” Mr Baird said.
The announcement has been warmly received by Greens MP John Kaye, who has also been drafting a bill to legalise medicinal cannabis.
“It is time for policy driven by compassion and science, not hysteria and prejudice,” he said.
“Last year’s cross-party Upper House inquiry responded to the evidence with a proposal that was cautious and limited.
“It carefully avoids any possibility of feeding the recreational market or creating new supplies of the drug. Instead it focuses on ensuring that those cancer patients and others who are facing a terminal illness can find relief for their symptoms without fear of a court appearance or time in jail.”
Under his own proposal, the NSW Government would allow people with a terminal illness to apply, on the recommendation of their treating doctor to the NSW Department of Health, for a card that would exempt them and their carers from prosecution for possession of 15 grams or less of crude cannabis.
“People who are dying should not have to also face the fear of prosecution for using a drug that relieves some of their pain and suffering,” Mr Kaye said.
“The tide is turning on medicinal cannabis.”
Nepean Greens member, Shane Gorman, is in full support of the drug’s medicinal use and recently spoke at parliament house on the issue.
“The Greens are not pushing for the drug to be legalised for recreational use, there are no proposed changes to NSW drug laws,” he said.
“However, what a new bill on medicinal cannabis would do is allow patients with terminal cancer and AIDs, among other diseases, to have the opportunity to access a powerful pain killer that would allow them to spend their final weeks at home and not in a hospital ward away from friends and family.”
Mr Gorman said that there are groups in the community who want to see cannabis legalised for personal recreational use, but that the Greens had a more conservative stance.
“This is about compassion. Currently, if you are caught in public with roughly less than 10 grams of cannabis you will likely receive a cannabis caution from police. Any more than that and you are looking at a fine and criminal record, or worse, possible drug supply charges,” Mr Gorman said.
“Under our proposed system those with medical approval and supervision would be exempt from being prosecuted.”
In Penrith for the year to December 2013, some 453 people were prosecuted for the use or possession of cannabis, up from 386 the year prior.
Local Naturopath John Miller-Crispe is in favour of medicinal cannabis if a good system to control its supply can be devised.
“If they are going to legalise medicinal cannabis as a pain killer, its availability should not be limited to terminally ill patients but those who have genuine pain,” he said.
“It does not seem fair to rule out people based on the cause of their pain if we are going to introduce it as a pain killer.
“At the same time, cannabis when smoked has detrimental affects and its supply would need to be very carefully monitored.
“Many prescription drugs are easy to obtain legally but then sold on illegally.”
Mr Miller-Crispe said research into administration methods such as a liquid extraction of the cannabis plant might hold the key to curbing illegal supply.
“It’s much harder to smoke a liquid,” he said.
He said that the supply of hemp seeds, which is currently illegal in Australia, should also be revised.
“Hemp seeds are a great source of protein yet they are banned in Australia. You cannot grow cannabis from these seeds that has hallucinogens.”
Mr Anderson said he is determined to work with his parliamentary colleagues to find a suitable system to balance these concerns of the community.
“It will be critical to get this bill right, “ he said.