The information I’m about to go over comes from a study. The study in question, (and articles surrounding it), pay more attention to the rise in medical consumers; and that’s a good story in and of itself. But perhaps the bigger issue when looking at Australia and it’s medical cannabis industry, is that despite growth, the black market still wins by leaps and bounds. Here’s a closer look at what’s going on.
Australia and cannabis
Recreational cannabis is illegal in Australia; but much like the US, it operates as both a federal body, and a conglomeration of provinces that have their own policies. As such, when it comes to how cannabis is regulated, this varies between its eight provinces. The federal policy is regulated under the Narcotics Drug Act of 1967, which puts drugs such as cannabis and heroin in the same group, saying: “They are banned because using them can endanger your health, your life, or the life of others. Because they are not regulated in the way legal drugs are you can never be sure what’s in them or how strong they are.”
All provinces in Australia choose their own specific regulation in terms of how to deal with drugs. And one chose to legalize cannabis for recreational use at the province level. In September 2019, the Australian Capital Territory, home to the capital city of Canberra, passed its own legalization; which allows adults to have up to 50 grams dry cannabis, or 150 grams damp. The legalization also allows for home-cultivation up to two plants (four per household); and sets the legal age to 18.
The individual provinces outside of this, vary greatly in how they treat cannabis offenders. For example, Queensland, Tasmania, New South Wales, and Victoria, all see recreational use as a criminal offense. Even of these, only Queensland applies prison sentences, which it will for 500 grams or below. This can mean up to 15 years; or 20 for more than 500 grams. Luckily these sentences are not always applied. The rest have diversion programs that generally keep a person out of jail.
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As far as South Australia, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory, all have some sort of decriminalization policy, or just a fining policy; so jail time is less likely. Even in these areas, large enough amounts, or multiple arrests, can sometimes include jail terms.
The federal government legalized medical cannabis in Australia, which happened in a few steps. First as a 2015 announcement to authorize the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. Second in February of 2016 when it passed an amendment to the Narcotics Drug Act that allowed this cultivation. And third in November of 2016 when it passed the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill 2016.
A look at the medical cannabis industry in Australia
Recreational policies vary, but medical cannabis is legal in the whole of Australia. A study from 2022 sheds a little light on how the industry is doing. And though it does show growth, it also highlights the strong presence of the black market, which the legal market has not been able to fully – or even mostly – divert from.
The study was published in July of 2022 (from a 2020 survey), so it suffices to say that with only a couple years to look at, that these results will likely change to a certain degree in the future. The term ‘medical cannabis’ is used in the survey regardless of whether the cannabis was obtained legally or illegally.
Called Medical cannabis use in Australia: consumer experiences from the online cannabis as medicine survey 2020 (CAMS-20), this study looks at general medical cannabis use habits; and was administered as a cross-sectional and anonymous online survey. It went on for four months, from September 2020 to January 2021. Those who answered were recruited in different ways including social media, forums, and from medical practices.
It looks at only those 18 and above, who used cannabis for some medical problem within the past year. The problem did not have to be medically diagnosed, and could be self-identified. The users are all Australian, and the study considered the problems treated, specifics of consumers, where they got the product from, and how they used it. There were 1600 participants.
What did they find? 1600 participants took part, and 62.4% said they only used illegally bought cannabis. This was compared to 37.6% who used prescription cannabis products within the same year’s time. The study found that those using prescription products were more likely to treat pain issues, whereas the illicitly-procured group was more likely to treat sleep issues. Both groups had high treatment levels for mental health issues. And both groups used on most-to-all days.
Those doing it the legal way were more likely to consume it orally – 72% (oils, tinctures, capsules, edibles); compared to the illegal use participants who were more into smoking it – 41%. The legal use group was more aware of the contents of their products in terms of cannabinoids, with only 3% uncertain of what they were using. In the illicit group, 34% were uncertain of their product. Of the legal group, only 10.8% saw the process of obtaining weed legally as easy-to-do, meaning ~89% had difficulty finding doctors to prescribe medications, or an issue procuring them.
Comparison to past surveys
Australia has its eye on this industry, and this survey was the third of its kind since the industry began. We can possibly expect a fourth to come out next year with 2022 numbers. So far, surveys were done in 2016 (just prior to the industry starting) and 2018 (two years in).
The first one in 2016 showed everyone using illicit cannabis, which should be expected, as no legal industry existed. The weed was mainly smoked then; and the main reasons were for pain and mental health conditions. The survey published in 2020 showed only a small rise in legal use. At that time 2.4% of the surveyed population used legal medical cannabis. Everything else was essentially identical to the previous survey, with most cannabis smoked, and most users looking to treat pain and mental issues. Demographics remained largely the same. The second showed more vape and oral product usage.
Many of the same questions were used between all surveys; however, the most recent survey focused more on the differences between legal and illegal procurement and use. Overall, investigators wanted to see “whether the increasing uptake of prescribed MC had changed the profile of people using medical cannabis in the community, the range of conditions treated, patterns of use and consumer experiences regarding accessing cannabis within a medical context.”
The biggest issue to the legal industry, is exemplified in the most recent survey, where only about 10% found it easy to get. The overwhelming majority that bought legally, didn’t agree it was easy to get, and that’s a population that did put in the effort to make it happen. If one of the biggest issues is in legal procurement, the government will have to find ways to make this better. Legal use did go from 2.4% to 37.6% which shows good growth. But that 62.4% shows that many people either prefer to do things on their own, or simply couldn’t find a legal way to do it effectively.
One of the biggest barriers to a medical market, is the existence of a legal recreational one. This is exemplified by Canada, which saw shrinking to its medical market, even before cannabis was formally legalized in 2018. Australia will have to deal with this if it passes a recreational bill. Of course the black market plays in hugely, as well.
We can see the negative effects of a black market on a legal one in Canada, the US, and Uruguay; the latter of which was the first country to pass a recreational legalization. In 2023, Uruguay is still having such problems, (even with low, government-controlled pricing), that it wants to start a tourism market to cut into the black market further. These are things Australia must consider, as the black market still clearly has control.
With an increase in legal medical sales, Australia has a bigger medical cannabis market than it did before. But it faces the challenge every location faces, in trying to divert from a well-established black market. If the country ever passes a recreational legalization, it’ll have yet another factor to deal with on the medical front. As of right now, its biggest problem seems to be in getting doctors to comply, and making services easily available to patients. The country is aware of this, with the introduction of bills like this one to improve the situation.
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