May 23, 2003
By Stavro Sofios and Mrak Skelsey
THE State Government would need to secure special federal clearance to import cannabis under its medical trial of the drug.
Importing the drug from overseas is one option being considered – along with growing the plants locally in high-security specialist research facilities.
Other key aspects of the trial are also unresolved, including how much cannabis would cost and whether it would be subsidised under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. The form of the cannabis is also up for expert debate and could include a spray, an "electronic bong" inhaler or tablets.
Getting the drug into the country could prove difficult. The Federal Health Department is still unsure whether it would fall into the "limited medical and scientific exceptions" allowable under international drug treaties.
The four-year trial is due to start in September.
Cancer and HIV sufferers, people with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries and sufferers of severe or chronic pain will be able to register with the Office of Medicinal Cannabis, which will be set up within NSW Health.
HIV sufferer Justin Brash takes seven different prescribed medicines a day but the one that he credits with his survival 15 years after being diagnosed is not what he gets from his doctor.
"I firmly believe that I wouldn't be here today without [cannabis]," he said.
Premier Bob Carr's spokeswoman said supplies would be "strictly controlled [under] strong parameters".
In the UK, about 4000 cannabis plants are grown for medical use under strict security at secret locations.
A draft Bill outlining how the State Government wants the trial to proceed should be released by early July.
It comes as Mr Carr faces a Supreme Court battle on another drugs issue, this time the heroin injecting room.
Robert Spanswick claims Mr Carr is conspiring to allow a "seditious enterprise" through the operation of the Kings Cross injecting room. He also alleges Mr Carr is guilty of continuous offences against the Customs Act by allowing heroin and cocaine to be used in the injecting room, which is Federal Government property.
Mr Carr has attempted to have the action struck out.
On May 13, Justice Jeff Shaw, a former Carr Government minister, took himself off the case because he had debated the injecting room Bill in Parliament.
"The fact that I have had professional associations with the plaintiff and, over a period of 10 years, been a political colleague of the defendant would not ordinarily lead me to the conclusion that I should not determine this application allocated to me by the court," Justice Shaw said. "However, and despite the lack of substantive objection, I am troubled by the fact that I did participate in the debates about the legislation that is at the core of the plaintiff's complaints."
THE KEY QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Q How can cannabis be used as a medicine?
A Cannabis had its first use in medicine about 5000 years ago and campaigners point to an extensive list of conditions it could be used to alleviate. It can be used as an analgesic, an appetite stimulant and to relieve nausea.
Claims have also been made for the use of cannabis in treating epilepsy, asthma, strokes, parkinson's disease, alzheimer's, alcoholism and insomnia.
Q What about side effects?
A There are dangerous side effects associated with cannabis including anxiety, panic or paranoia and psychosis.
Cannabis contains a chemical, known as THC, which travels through the blood steam to the brain and disrupts its normal functioning. Mental health experts warn that for people who have a psychotic illness, or are predisposed to such illnesses, the effect of THC can be strong and longer-lasting – causing delusions and hallucinations.
Q Who will get it?
A Those under 18, pregnant or who have a criminal record will be banned from receiving prescriptions. Mr Carr said this week patients with a history of mental illness are likely to be added to this list.
To be eligible, a patient will first have to demonstrate that conventional treatment has not been successful in alleviating their pain or symptoms.
They will register, annually, with the Office of Medicinal Cannabis at NSW Health and will require a certificate from a doctor and proof of an on-going medical relationship with that doctor.
Q Is this a step towards decriminalisation of cannabis?
A No. Nevertheless, the four-year trial is a step that cannot be retracted
and few will be surprised if it is followed by pressure to extend the controlled
supply of the drug.
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