AUSTRALIA’S fledgling medicinal cannabis market is about to get a big boost, as the government announced Thursday it planned to legalise exports of the drug in a bid to score a piece of the estimated US$55 billion global market.
The country joins Uruguay, Canada and the Netherlands on the shortlist of countries to legalise the practice.
Cannabis cultivation in Australia is still relatively small, as recreational use remains illegal. But the government has lofty ambitions for the emerging market and hopes domestic medicinal use, legalised last year, and exports will rapidly boost production.
“Our goal is very clear: to give farmers and producers the best shot at being the world’s number one exporter of medicinal cannabis,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.
Regulations that currently prevent exports of medicinal cannabis products will be changed once Parliament resumes in February. The country’s main opposition Labor Party has signalled it would support the move.
The changes will cover cannabis-based treatments such as oils, patches, sprays, lozenges and tablets that have the potential to relieve the pain and symptoms of a myriad of conditions.
Shares in the more than a dozen Australian cannabis producers listed on the local exchange soared after the announcement.
Peter Crock, chief executive of Cann Group, which cultivates cannabis for medicinal and research purposes, said medicinal marijuana production had been stymied by limited demand from Australian patients.
“While the Australian patient base is growing, it is very small,” Crock told Reuters. “Being able to export will allow us to have the scale to increase production.”
The number of patients being prescribed medicinal cannabis has been limited since Parliament passed laws permitting its use in 2016.
Advocates have pointed to the unwillingness of many doctors to prescribe it, as well as the special access arrangements doctors must follow, as hurdles to broader use of the drug.
Adam Benjamin, founder of Medifarm, the first Australian company to be licensed to cultivate and manufacture medicinal marijuana, believed that rather than being actively reluctant, many doctors were waiting for more education.
“I guess what we’ve all got to remember is that the last time any doctor probably heard about the word cannabis was at med school, and they were told ‘don’t you dare touch this stuff at a party’,” he told ABC News.
“So in their mind, much like most of us, they’re coming out of the back of recreational concepts.
“We’re not saying this is a cure-all, but if you’re the right patient and this is the right treatment, this is a new tool in the doctor’s bag.”
Additional reporting by Reuters