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Roller coaster year ahead for the medical marijuana movement

28 February 2015 No Comment

IF the old saying of “follow the money is any indication, this year will be a roller coaster for the medical marijuana movement.

Late last month, an Initial Public Offering for a company touted as “Australia’s first medical marijuana stock was wildly oversubscribed and the issue price of 20c a share looked like a bargain as within days the stock headed towards $1.

Despite the prospectus going to considerable lengths to explain the highly speculative nature of the venture, there was little restraint. After opening at 20c, the stock soon reached 92c before heading south to 29c. Some savvy traders made millions from the hype, but many mum and dad investors would be out-of-pocket.

The dot-bong era is well and truly upon us. Even recently retired politicians such as ex-federal Liberal MP for Moore in Western Australia, Dr Mal Washer, have jumped on the cannabis-cash bandwagon.

As Chairman of the newly formed Auscann Holdings, Washer has formed an unlikely partnership with the man widely known as the “King of Cannabis Castle, the Australian-based, dual Dutch/Australian national Nevil Schoenmakers. Named on the Auscann website as the cannabis breeder in the operation, in the 1990s Schoenmakers narrowly avoided extradition to the US where he faced a jail sentence for selling concealed marijuana seeds by mail order.

The Washer/Schoenmakers collaboration is, indeed, a curious one, in part because their company would probably fail the probity test if Australia adopted the standards that apply in the US and Canada. But despite this, many investors seem to be in a hurry to commercialise an industry that doesn’t yet exist.

Such was the frenzy in Canada that in mid-2014 the Canadian regulator issued a rare caveat emptor warning to investors, following a gaggle of marijuana companies going public.

There is much to be learnt from the Canadian experience. In Australia, Federal parliament will soon likely see the introduction of the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill. This proposed legislation has considerable cross-party support. But while it has much going for it, in many ways it is deficient.

The greatest attribute of the proposed legislation is that it would establish a regulatory system totally separate from the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is ill equipped to deal with marijuana as a medicine. However the establishment of doctors as the “gatekeepers of the system could be a stumbling block, as proved to be the case in Canada. In the early days of the program stories of people needing to literally fly across the country to find a doctor willing to prescribe cannabis were not uncommon. This is not surprising considering that generations of medical students have been taught that all marijuana is bad. It is precisely for this reason that the latest Canadian regulations, which came into force in March 2014, have relaxed their “gatekeeper provisions to include nurses as well as doctors.

The most troubling aspect of all the talk about medical marijuana is the narrow definition of who will be eligible legally to use it. The terminally ill and patients enduring chemotherapy are widely mentioned, but what of the sufferers of chronic pain, epilepsy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, insomnia and PTSD for which cannabis offers proven relief?

Countries throughout Europe and South America, as well as Canada and 23 states in the US allow the medical use of marijuana. Yet in Australia, we are still beginning to take legislative baby steps and even they are not guaranteed to pass.

It took a series of court cases in Canada to establish its medical marijuana program. Commencing in 2001 with R v Parker and in subsequent cases, the courts ruled that cannabis prohibition is unlawful because it infringed on personal rights guaranteed in their Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Today any Canadian citizen over 18, whatever their ailment, with the aid of a medical practitioner can legally access cannabis if they decide it’s the appropriate medicine for them.

Australia is one of the few western democracies without a charter or bill of rights. Opponents believe in the supremacy of parliament to make laws and argue that a bill of rights will increase the powers of the judiciary. But what happens when, in the case of medical marijuana, we can’t rely on governments to get it right and to behave in a just and humane manner?

Consider that in the past year federal and state governments passed laws affecting a whole range of rights from freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press. At the same time as they were campaigning for the release of Peter Greste, our federal government was ramming new anti-terrorism laws through the parliament that could see journalists jailed for up to 10 years.

As that vocal advocate for Human Rights, former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, rightly puts it: “Often (our) democracy works most imperfectly.

A Bill of Rights would provide an avenue for judicial intervention on issues such as medical marijuana where many, if not most, of our politicians still fear to tread.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, February 28-March 1, 2015, Inquirer p 24.

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