NSW has become the first State to announce medical cannabis trials beginning as early as 2016 in Newcastle. Additionally, both QLD and the Commonwealth have announced their intention to look at the issue of medical cannabis legislation in a more serious manner.
NSW will be the first Australian state or territory to conduct medicinal cannabis clinical trials for terminally ill adults with cancer after Premier Mike Baird gave the go-ahead to researchers at UNSW on 28 July 2015.
The drug can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including muscle spasms caused by epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, Crohns disease and poor appetite caused by HIV. However, University of New South Wales’ Chief Investigator Associate Professor Meera Agar – who has led several research studies into the management of terminally ill patients – will lead the research team and focus on how medicinal cannabis can improve poor appetite and appetite-related symptoms, such as nausea, in terminally ill adult cancer patients in their final stages of life.
The first part of the trial will be held at the Calvary Mater Newcastle Hospital in early 2016 and involve about 30 patients with the goal of discovering whether cannabis can be successfully inhaled as a vapour, what its side effects are and the frequency and size of the ideal dose, with initial results expected by the end of 2016. Part two of the study could see it rolled out to major NSW regional and metropolitan hospitals with a larger number of patients. The next step will be for the research team to seek review and approval of the trial by a Human Research Ethics Committee.
Mr Baird said the first trial would be critical to better understanding how role medical cannabis could alleviate symptoms and pain in terminally ill patients:
“We do not want patients or carers having to play pharmacist – that is why it is so important to explore the safest and most effective ways we can deliver compassionate care and improve the quality of life...Our trials will help to position NSW at the forefront of world-class research in this area and explore how we can complement the existing palliative care treatments and therapies patients receive.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Victoria Premier Dan Andrews have both publicly backed the NSW trials Victoria and Mr Andrews has indicated he would work in partnership with NSW next year to run them, including those targeting children with serious epilepsy.
Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick said it was "an important step forward" and hoped to soon be able to provide relief to patients:
"Our commitment as a state is to support the use of medical cannabis for children with drug resistant severe epilepsy, we hope that will follow shortly after what is happening in NSW at the moment...We are working with NSW in the development of those trials, but this is an important step forward in the important work that needs to be done, to make sure that medical cannabis is both safe and effective and when it comes to children, we need to be very careful that any drug and pharmaceutical that is used, is safe and effective and has limited side effects – hopefully no side effects at all."
Spearheaded by Greens Leader Richard Di Natale, the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill would effectively make the Federal government responsible for overseeing the production, distribution and use of the drug.
The bill was introduced into Parliament last November 2014 and sent to a committee in February 2015. After conducting public hearings around the country and attracting almost 200 public submissions, the committee is due to deliver its report on 10 August 2015.
Sources say the committee will back the bill despite strong concerns from the Health Department. In its submission to the committee, the department said the bill would set up a new regulatory system that would create "complexity and uncertainty" and potentially clash with the Therapeutic Goods Act. Department secretary Martin Bowles warned the bill left important legal and practical issues unidentified or unresolved, "leading to the risk of regulatory gap, overlapping laws and a lack of clarity about the exercise of jurisdiction by agencies and possible inconsistency with other existing laws". The department also warns the bill could contravene some of Australia's international obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
The ACT Legislative Assembly is currently considering the Greens’ draft bill to legalise medicinal cannabis, with a report expected to be ready before July 2016, while Tasmania is holding its own parliamentary inquiry into legalising medical cannabis, reporting at the beginning of 2016.
No other States or Territories (other than Victoria) have yet voiced their intentions towards the issue.
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