When it comes to cannabis, Australia is taking it slow and steady.
In 2016, limited access to imported medical cannabis products became legal. Since then, regulations have slowly evolved, expanding from allowing only imported finished products to allowing for domestic cannabis product manufacture. As of this March, more than 100,000 approvals have been granted for patients to obtain medical cannabis products, with approvals ramping up each month. And, that same month, in response to a Senate inquiry into “current barriers to patient access to medicinal cannabis in Australia,” the Australian government promised change.
As local production and R&D begins to take root, so, too, are conversations about broader reforms. Last year, the Parliament of Victoria, Australia launched a formal inquiry on cannabis, and, as Cannabis Wire recently reported, hearings are ongoing, with one planned for the town of Beechworth this week. At launch, MP Fiona Patten said, “We’re interested in hearing people’s views on whether use of cannabis should remain legal for medical treatment only or whether current restrictions on use of cannabis should be changed.”
Against this backdrop, last month, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), along with Medicinal Cannabis Industry Australia (MCIA) and Source Certain International (SCI), hosted a webinar on “medicinal cannabis advertising compliance.”
In Australia, medical cannabis products are considered “unapproved therapeutic goods,” with the exception of GW Pharmaceuticals’ Nabiximols, which is also known as Sativex. (In the US, the only Food and Drug Administration approved medicine derived from cannabis plants is also produced by GW, and it is called Epidiolex, for patients with severe epilepsies.)
Still, patients whose physicians are willing to support their use of medical cannabis products, and are willing to apply to prescribe them, have a few options for access.
Products can be imported in finished form, for example, or can be produced locally from imported “starting materials.” Imported products primarily come from Canada and Europe, and can be in raw form for vaporization, or in liquid or topical forms. Today, dozens of companies are approved to import and/or manufacture medical cannabis products, including major global players like Canopy Growth and Cronos.
One company that is currently producing medical cannabis products in Australia is Cann Group Limited, and its CEO, Peter Crock, who is also the chair of the MCIA, spoke during the webinar about some of the dos and don’ts of cannabis advertising.
There is a fine line between stating what a company does, and promoting the company and its products. Cannabis businesses can, for example, say that they are licensed to import and supply medical cannabis, or detail what research the company supports or conducts. A business cannot, however, show images or cannabis plants or products, share testimonials, or suggest any potential benefits from consuming their products. And, significantly, even though an entity must be approved by the TGA to supply medical cannabis, the products cannot bear any statement or stamp that suggest the product is “TGA approved.”
The TGA is closely watching those who cross the line. On its website it includes a “case study” about a so-called medical cannabis “clinic” that, in late 2018, promoted on its Facebook page the use of cannabis “for treating conditions including chronic pain, palliative care, epilepsy, chemotherapy induced vomiting/nausea, multiple sclerosis, neuropathic pain, cancer pain, PTSD, depression, fibromyalgia, autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, anorexia and wasting associated illness, Parkinson’s Disease, seizure management, Tourette’s and tremors.”
This prompted a “cease and desist” letter from the TGA, and also pushed the agency to expand its outreach to other cannabis-related entities regarding advertising and compliance.
Nearby New Zealand is also grappling with cannabis reforms, as Cannabis Wire has reported. There, the medical cannabis industry formally launched in 2020, the same year that voters narrowly defeated a referendum to legalize cannabis for adult use.