Most of the recent international cannabis regulatory news is about either Canada or Mexico, with some attention to Germany, which legalized medical marijuana in March.
Mexico President Enrique Nieto signed a decree in late June to legalize medical marijuana; Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently signed a bill legalizing recreational marijuana beginning July, 2018.
Not necessarily on the radar of the top global players in the medical cannabis industry is Australia.
According to Bill Turner, assistant secretary for the Australian Office of Drug Control (ODC), the country has taken in a number of applications into its medical marijuana program since October, 2016. “Some of those have been withdrawn, a number of those are being assessed, and a number of those licenses have been granted,” he said.
They have granted 13 licenses, he said, with seven for medicinal cannabis licenses which allow the cultivator to grow cannabis that can be eventually used for therapeutic uses “for the treatment of a human being.”
The ODC stated that they granted three cannabis research licenses and two manufacturing licenses: one for Auscann Group and one for Cann Group. The ODC is currently assessing another 30 license applications.
Cann received the first licence issued by the Australian government’s ODC in February, 2017, a research license that will allow it to progress the development of medicinal cannabis. It has established relationships with organizations in both Australia and overseas that can supply elite genetics and collaborate on breeding programs.
A month later, Cann was issued Australia’s first medicinal cannabis cultivation license, which allows Cann to produce Australian-grown cannabis that can be prescribed for patient use.
Auscann, an Australian-based company founded by a doctor and a former member of Australia’s Parliament, will be initially targeting medications for neuropathic and chronic pain, which they believe represents a $9 billion opportunity in the country. AusCann Group listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in February this year. AusCann’s top 10 shareholders own the majority of the company.
Stocks of both companies have been soaring on the ASX since launching their IPOs this year.
According to Elaine Darby, managing director of the Auscann Group, speaking at a company presentation in June in Hong Kong, the company’s largest shareholder is Ontario-based Canopy Growth Corporation. Canopy lists Snoop Dog as a partner, one of the first celebrities to release a branded line of cannabis product.
Auscann also formed a joint venture with a Chilean company, Foundation Daya, the only licensed producer of medicinal cannabis in Chile. More recently, the company formed a strategic partnership with one of the largest opiate producers in the world, Tasmanian Alkaloids.
“A license is simply an assessment that the people are the appropriate people to be doing this, and that they have the resources and security in place,” Turner said. “It’s the permits that actually allow them to grow. Those permits are the basis on which the Office of Drug Control gathers information and regulates the amount of cannabis that can be grown, and to report that to the International Narcotic Control Board, thus fulfilling our reporting obligations.”
He said that he wasn’t “letting the cat out of the bag” in reporting that Australia is also in the process of exploring the export of medicinal cannabis products. “When we set this up we did not allow exports initially,” Turner said. “But last year I said that it was always part of the policy that we had provision to allow that at some point.”
He said that the reason that they didn’t allow exports initially was because they wanted to make sure that Australian patients had access, and the product didn’t just get diverted away to the export markets that were a little more lucrative. “Secondly, we needed to satisfy the International Narcotic Control Board and our obligations, which we have done. So we can tick that one off,” Turner said.
Currently the country has just 145 medical marijuana patients, with the majority of them coming since 2008.
As with the U.S., doctors are hesitant to prescribe medical marijuana because of lack of information, Turner said. But there was special access granted through the Department of Health-Therapeutic Goods Administration for doctors to provide patients with medical marijuana as an “unapproved drug.” Medical cannabis became a controlled drug in the Australian poison standards on November, 2016, positioned as a Schedule 8 substance in a regulatory scheme (with ten being the worst) similar to U.S. DEA scheduling.
Turner said that the regulations that were put in place in 2016 were “just a mirror”of the Narcotics Drug Act of February, 2016. “I will point out that the restrictions that were put in place from that act were passed unanimously through both Houses of Parliament without any dissent.”
He acknowledged that there have been reports that the government is, in fact, making it more difficult for patients to get access to cannabis because of the structure that they are using. But Turner disputes that. “I think that the government has been much aligned recently. But we are all have the same view. We want to make sure that patients get the best possible care. But an obligation of the Therapeutics Goods Administration and Occupational Therapy Council is to also protect patients. And we need to get that right.”
There has been “a little uncivil discourse” in the country around the topic of medical marijuana, he said. “But when one resorts to name calling, the argument is lost. The minister has been called a hypocrite. We have been called cruel. But we want the same thing, and we have a framework for doing that. Cannabis has to fit in to the medicine framework and the medicine framework has to fit to cannabis.”
On its website, the ODC states that, even with those licenses granted, it will be some time before domestically produced products are available. To support access to medicinal cannabis while the domestic cultivation and manufacture scheme comes online, the Department of Health has agreed to allow import of medicinal cannabis products in anticipation of patient prescriptions.