Government and governance, Social policy, Health | Australia

30 July 2018

The pathway to responsible cannabis policy is hazy, with various warring agendas and interest groups complicating the politics of ‘medical’ marijuana, Jennifer Martin writes.

The Lancet recently posed the question “what is the extent of the obligation health professionals have to the society in which they live”. It’s a great question for doctors whose adoption of the Hippocratic Oath focuses on ensuring the patient receives the best care. Advocating for health reform is often undertaken by groups representing consumers or organisations working in public health, and many doctors’ employment conditions restrict their ability to speak freely on such issues.

Therefore, the recent interest of doctors around the introduction of ‘medical’ marijuana is unusual.

Rarely has the emergence of a therapeutic raised so much public interest as the ‘medical’ cannabis issue. Even the name is confusing – raising queries such as whether medical cannabis is ‘safer’ to drive with compared to ‘normal’ cannabis.

To consider why there is so much public interest over a plant that has been around for thousands of years and is grown widely across parts of Asia-Pacific, a consideration of multiple and overlapping social, political, financial and health agendas is necessary.

More on this: Medicinal cannabis should be more than pot luck

The public interest also suggests the need for clarification over definitions and terms and, in many cases, a broader understanding of the differences between the recreational and prescribed use of medical substances.

Australian State, Territory and Federal legislation has liberalised access to cannabis plant and extracts to treat specific medical conditions. Whilst many professionals are concerned about this legislation, some patients believe it does not go far enough.

This has led to much deliberation about appropriate and consistent public policy. From a health perspective, the agenda concerns individual and population mental health (particularly for adolescents and for children), safety, availability and consistency of product; concerns regarding the incidence of a ‘bad’ death due to adverse events – namely paranoia, delirium and psychosis at the end of life – and the role of a carer making decisions on an unregistered product for use in a non-competent person (child, elderly person with dementia or confusion).

Use of cannabis products can produce an opportunity cost for other treatments for which evidence is better, dosing is known and safety more described. Ethical issues are also at the fore, with ‘first do no harm’ in competition with ‘autonomy’ and ‘beneficence’.

Regulatory issues also pose concerns for healthcare workers and patients, with specific State and Federal legislation around the rules for holding and prescribing Schedule 8 drugs (which include cannabis products), in hospitals and communities. Failure to uphold these may place the doctor, pharmacist or hospital in a legislative or regulatory breach.

There are also financial agendas from agriculturalists planning to grow and export products, the support industries such as those of technologies, soil and water, and supply chain businesses. Liberalisation of cannabis legislation is high on the agenda for these groups.

Some doctors may be aligned with the drug reform lobby. Other doctors whilst not supportive of ‘drug reform’, do support the provision of a potentially safer product for ‘recreational’ users, with a ‘harm minimisation’ focus.  For doctors, a lack of the standard evidence needed to prescribe is problematic.

Public health experts and doctors, particularly those of adolescents and children, have concerns about the unknown issues – long-term health outcomes and long-term public health outcomes. For Government, there are also unknown externalities, measured outside of health statistics.

More on this: There is no harm-free cannabis policy

Public Health experts usually refer to outcomes of policy approaches and drug programs overseas before they recommend a new policy with either licit (e.g. opioids) or illicit drugs in Australia. It would seem reasonable for Australia to set up pharmacovigilance systems to help evaluate outcomes of policy changes.

Australia is a signatory of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which places the same restrictions on cannabis cultivation that it does on opium cultivation and outlines certain political commitments. Ultimately, there is a cap on how liberal an Australian cannabis policy can be.

From a public perspective, there is currently a lack of easily available information on cannabis, and conflicting voices dominate the many informal websites and user forums. Both the Therapeutic Goods Administration and local State Health websites provide resources and support in this area.

Australia needs to consider the extent of the obligation health professionals have to the society in which they live, and the role a political agenda plays in providing our healthcare system.

The liberalisation of cannabis availability inspires many strong voices, and policymakers will inevitably have to navigate strong oppositional interest groups. If we wish to ensure our political system delivers the best health outcome possible in the face of a cloud of uncertainty, ensuring our politicians have access to full knowledge and expertise is imperative.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

3 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    Legislation for all cannabis is needed to curb the sinsemilla available to children everywhere. This “skunk” is more likely (not proven) to increase poor mental health when consumed regularly in people under 18. Prohibition has created these strong strains and put it in the hands of children. I certainly found it much easier to get cannabis than alcohol when i was 16.

    • loren paul wiener ( says:

      Interesting interpretation – The story could be called, “What Happens When the anti-Cannabis Movement Gets Confused about Their Own Lies – Quite simple, when Austrlaia legalised “Cannabis” for medical use in 2016, they also redefined it into law. As of 2016, Cannabis need not include real Cannabis but can include GMO, Isolated Cannabinoids, CBD, Industrial Hemp or synthetics as not form a plant at all – THAT IS THE LAW – or think of it another way … If ANYONE got legal medical cannabis, marijuana, CBD etc in 2016-2018 it did not include real Cannabis. We have a new bill in NSW Labor – It bypasses the BS form the TGA / ODC where there are nothing but road blocks. Also the ODC site for ALL legal Medical Cannabis is there for all to see there are only 2 real Cannabis products and they confirm it is not available in Australia and the ODC recently added that to their site. Also all new cannabis like drugs on that page that are now “legal cannabis” Zero have been tested. So before the next story or debate perhaps we start with the facts ?

  2. D says:

    The worst policy of all is prohibition. It has ruined many thousands of Australians lives let alone globally. Legalise it now in all its forms. Educate children that being intoxicated regardless of the substance is not OK. There’s plenty of real facts about cannabis out there. You just need to ignore the arrogant prohibitionist lies and propaganda still being spread by govt ministers even though our PM has admitted to smoking cannabis. It clearly did him harm. The war on drugs is BS and it needs to end.

Back to Top

Press Ctrl+C to copy