The cannabis industry has come a long way in recent years but the legal framework remains murky.

The primary issue is the industry’s overall status. Cannabis can be legally grown for medical and scientific purposes but it is illegal for personal use except in the ACT.

For companies that don’t need the recreational market this may seem enough. But the law can be difficult in other instances and a parliamentary inquiry is underway looking into some of these issues.

There’s no question that the broad legal status of cannabis overrides all of these because there could be anywhere between 100,000 and 700,000 patients accessing medical cannabis illegally and without medical supervision.

But there are other changes that the industry is pushing for, arguing the industry is being held back.

Three in particular stand out.


How should patients access cannabis?

Currently medical cannabis can be obtained through various access schemes run by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

But the TGA expects patients to have exhausted all treatment options before applying.

Additionally, many cannabis treatments are expensive. One patient in a survey by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association reported one 30ml bottle of CBD oil cost $265. For her condition, this prescription lasts only two weeks.

These are two of the key reasons for the enormous black market for medical cannabis.

A submission from the Medical Cannabis Users Association of Tasmania and several others called for subsidies to make it more affordable, pointing to the US’ somewhat confusing stance on cannabis products.

While America has kept marijuana illegal federally, the Farm Bills legalised industrial hemp.

Ecofibre (ASX:EOF) argued that as a consequence, the US was an ideal market for consumers with low prices and broad availability.

Some submissions also called for an independent regulatory model. Inevitably having an independent body at federal government level would involve harmonisation of state laws.

These can vary from state to state. One example is the ability of GPs to prescribe cannabis without needing an additional specialist; South Australia and Tasmania prohibits this.

Bod Australia (ASX:BDA) has called for consistent treatment of hemp and cannabis medicines across Australian states and territories.


Imports and exports

But a lack of subsidies is only one reason why medical cannabis is expensive. Another is that there is a lack of large-scale domestic product suppliers.

Since November 2016, only two companies have bought Australian cultivated products to market. Foreign companies manufacture 90 per cent of Australia’s cannabis products.

Any aspiring (and existing) cultivators are also subject to more red tape than importers. One particular instance is having to manufacture to PIC/S GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards. Importers aren’t required to do this.

One of these local cultivators is Little Green Pharma, which is planning an ASX listing this year.

While the company has not yet responded to Stockhead’s requests for further comment, it made a submission to the inquiry. It suggested the government apply the same standards to imported cannabis products as to other imported pharmaceuticals.


Drug driving implications 

Another issue is that people who take medical cannabis and need to drive could find themselves prosecuted for ‘drug-driving’.

A 34-year-old South Australian cannabis oil patient, Brenton Peters, had to front court after testing positive for THC while driving.

However, he was not charged because there was no evidence he was impaired or a danger to other drivers.

For typical prescription drugs, people are only penalised when they’re “incapable of exercising effective control of the vehicle”.

While Peters’ case was dismissed, it was a personal choice made by Magistrate Susan O’Connor; typically under law just having a detectable amount is an offence.

No consideration is given to impairment let alone whether or not their driving was dangerous.

Furthermore, THC is detectable for days after. In one case in New South Wales a driver failed a test after consuming cannabis a week prior.

FreshLeaf Analytics principal consultant Rhys Cohen told Stockhead this was a major problem and reform needed to happen.

“Currently around 60 per cent of prescriptions are for products that contain THC and would therefore likely trigger a positive result on a roadside drug test for a large number of patients,” he said.

“THC persists in the body for some weeks after ingestion, so there is a risk of a patient receiving a positive result on a drug test even if they are not impaired in any way by the drug.”

In FreshLeaf’s submission, it recommended people who can produce a current and valid prescription should be exempt from prosecution just for having THC in their system.


The broader ramifications 

Dr Mark Hardy, a specialist at Cannabis Access Clinics, says clinics such as his may be unable to prescribe it just because of the doubts surrounding how drug testing technology will respond.

There is also the wider belief that if cannabis is better regulated, it could go a long way to decreasing the size of the black market.

The Australian Medical Association closed its submission by saying, “the more we can bring medicinal cannabis into a conventional framework – the better it will be used.”