In 1965 Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) established crops of opium poppies in Tasmania, the island state of Australia. Now the island produces 50% of the opium alkaloids needed for the world’s pharmaceutical industry. Now, also, pressure is growing in Tasmania to take the lead in growing cannabis for medical use — and political pressure throughout Australia is beginning to swing behind the cause. The news media are increasingly featuring stories about people who have obtained marijuana through their own efforts, such as a young man with bowel cancer and a woman who uses the drug to suppress seizures (she was once having 200 a day). The main thrust of publicity is the use of the drug for cancer patients to help manage their nausea and loss of appetite.
One of the recent big surprises was one of the latest recruits to the medical marijuana cause: Sydney radio host Alan Jones. For non-Australian readers, you need to know that Alan Jones is a radio phenomenon. Based at Sydney talk station 2GB and still going strong at age 73, Jones has topped the breakfast ratings for years (as he did when he was at station 2UE before switching). He is syndicated throughout Australian on stations as diverse as 2GZ Orange, NSW, 4LG Longreach in outback Queensland and on Sun FM in the orange-growing area of Mildura, Victoria. Just as importantly, he is close to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and it is said they talk privately almost every day. But here’s the clincher: Jones is conservative, a law-and-order supporter, denouncer of alcohol abuse. Now he has swung his considerable power behind plans to produce medical cannabis.
The first stumbling block is that the Tasmanian government is opposed, even though the trials would be conducted in league with the University of Tasmania and the company behind the plan already has an order for 1,000 tonnes from Canada. Plus, the company, Tasman Health Cannbinoids, is chaired by a medical doctor, Mal Washer, who until last year was a Liberal member of Federal parliament (the Liberals being the conservative main party).
The Australian Medical Association has opened the door by describing cannabis as having “therapeutic potential” while one of the country’s biggest medical unions, the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association, has backed the issuing of cannabis to patients who have AIDS and other terminal diseases. Several cabinet members of the Liberal-National state government in New South Wales have backed time for a private member’s bill to go before the state’s Legislative Assembly next month which, if passed, would legalise medical cannabis in the state. (Under Australian parliamentary practice almost all bills are initiated by the governing parties, and private member’s bills usually get short shrift.) The state’s premier, Mike Baird, is reported to be in favour of the bill although he is strongly opposed to recreational use of the drug.
In Tasmania itself, the cannabis plan, while opposed by the recently elected Liberal state government, is supported by both the Labor and Greens members. And by the state’s Farmers and Graziers Association.
On the federal level, a cross-party group has re-established the Parliamentary Group of Drug Policy and Law Reform. One of its members, Senator Richard di Natale (a Greens member and a medical doctor), has been one of the most enthusiastic advocates in Federal parliament arguing that medical cannabis is far less addictive than opiate-based painkillers.
Meanwhile, Tasmania’s poppy-growing farmers are planning to expand output to meet growing world demand. New areas are to be brought into production and now farmers across Bass Strait in Victoria state are looking to build a poppy industry there also. (The next biggest producers of poppies for medicine are Turkey with 23% global market share, France 21% and Spain 4%.) GlaxoSmithKline has its poppies processed in Port Fairy, Victoria; the other main corporate players in Tasmania are Johnson & Johnson and an Australian company. Poppies are worth A$120 million a year to the island’s farmers.
One of the reasons that Tasmania has been so successful is that the poppy-growing areas are well away from Australia’s main population areas and the drug trade, although theft of poppies has been increasing.