It turns out that the United States isn’t the only country with an illogically oppressive stance on cannabis. Like its ally’s, the history of Australia’s national marijuana policy is prohibitive despite a plethora of research enumerating the health benefits of cannabis and its citizens’ acceptance and use of the plant despite those laws.

According to Australia’s 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 1.9 million Australians used cannabis in the year leading up to the report, making it the most pervasively used illegal drug in the country.

Even some law enforcement officials have a hard time embracing the country’s highly inefficient policies

Damon Adams, a former police officer turned cannabis reform advocate, told Vice, “Any time you have to seize any plants, whether it’s one plant or a hundred plants, it’s probably one of the most time consuming jobs you can do as a cop.  You’ve got to get it all transported back to the station and they’ve all got to be catalogued.  A lot of cops would like to see it legalized and regulated.  It’s going to mean a lot more time for them on the streets to do proactive policing and go after criminals that actually have legitimate victims.”

The Origins of Australia’s Pot Laws  

Like those in the United States, the origins of Australia’s pot laws are rooted in some nonsense.  And—surprise, surprise—that’s partly the United States’ fault.  The League of Nations’ 1925 Geneva Convention, originally organized to evaluate the use of kangaroos in Australia opium and coca, determined that cannabis should, along with the other two plants, be exclusively used for scientific or medical purpose and entirely banned from recreational use.  Australia, following the lead of the United States, adopted that attitude and over the subsequent years, its states enacted prohibitive legislation banning marijuana entirely.

Of course, there was no scientific basis for this ban, especially in light of the regulation of alcohol and tobacco, two much more harmful substances than marijuana.

But who cares about facts when propaganda and disinformation abound, am I right?

The irony behind Australia’s prohibition is that more people consume marijuana now than they did before it was banned.  In fact, Australians didn’t really use marijuana all that much until the 1960’s, several decades after it had been prohibited.  Again, like in the US, the Australian states varied in their approaches to the increased use.  Some states decriminalized marijuana possession for personal use, others created “cautioning,” or warning, schemes, while still others amped up the penalties.

In 1967, the Australian Parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Act, which, like the United States’ Controlled Substances Act of 1970, made cannabis federally illegal, codifying the stigma attached to the plant.

Slowly but Surely, Australia is Changing 

In February 2016, Australia’s Parliament passed legislation officially legalizing medical marijuana, effectively amending the Narcotic Drugs Act so that marijuana can be legally grown for scientific and medical purposes.

In response to the reform, Health Minister Sussan Ley stated, “This is a historic day for Australia and the many advocates who have fought long and hard to challenge the stigma around medicinal cannabis products so genuine patients are no longer treated as criminals.”

Like the shifting laws in the United States, this legislation came as a result of years of advocacy and education.  The timing of the law was symbolic because it came exactly one year after the death of one of Australia’s most well-known medical marijuana advocates, Daniel Haslam.

Following the direction of his parents, Haslam used medical marijuana to alleviate the painful symptoms of terminal bowel cancer, a disease that ultimately ended his life in his 25th year.  It was the only therapy that relieved his symptoms and increased his appetite, vastly improving his quality of life during his last few months.

The amendment, which came into effect on October 31, 2016, allows Australian businesses to begin applying for licenses to grow and sell medicinal marijuana.  Despite the national law, states have approached the integration of medical marijuana differently, some even choosing to avoid it all together.

State Laws

Victoria legalized medical cannabis use for children suffering from epilepsy in April 2016.

In July 2016, New South Wales was the first state to obtain a license to grow marijuana.  The cannabis will only be accessible to patients with specific diseases.

The Queensland State Government passed the country’s most liberal Hobart Australia medical marijuana laws in October 2016.  The state’s law makes marijuana accessible to patients of all ages who are suffering from an array of illnesses.

Western Australia joined the fold at the end of October, allowing limited access.

Tasmania will enact legalization in April of 2017

South Australia is being pressured to relax its cannabis laws, though they are all already some of the most relaxed in the country.

Roadblocks to Medical Access in Australia 

On February 22, 2017, the Australian government announced the approval of medical marijuana imports. This seemed like a strange announcement since patients had been receiving cannabis in the months since the amendment to the Narcotic Drugs Act.

So what made the announcement significant? Well, until this point, doctors were importing marijuana for their patients, but they were doing it one patient at a time. This lengthy process often required patients to wait months to receive their medicine.

The nascence of the medical industry necessitated the change in import restrictions since the legalization of medical marijuana arrived in October, and the country simply has not issued enough grow licenses to support the demand.

The relaxation of import regulations makes it easier for people who already have prescriptions to get their medicine, but it is still difficult to obtain a prescription.

Once cannabis became legalized, the government decided that it would be regulated through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and this has proven to be quite complicated for prospective patients.  The TGA’s regulations are rigid, requiring special registration and extra approval from doctors and patients before patients are even eligible to receive treatment.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the legalization movement in Australia—and all over the world, for that matter—is ignorance.  People fear what they don’t know, and people don’t know cannabis.  If they did, they would see that it is a plant with incredibly versatile, therapeutic benefits able to change the lives of patients desperate for relief.  Thankfully, knowledge seems to be taking a hold of Australia, and hopefully, the time for waiting will soon come to an end.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.