March media wrap-up: Money and marijuana

In March, research studies in mainstream media were few-and-far-between. Overshadowed by the sheer number of articles focused on the commercial prospects of cannabis, science dropped from the headlines and almost right off the bottom of the screen.

cannabis media

Cannabis research – the good, the bad and the ugly of it – seems to be taking place at an ever-increasing rate.

Each month, when we put our media wrap up together, the one thing we can usually count on, is pages and pages of media articles (mainstream and niche) that discuss the many and varied cannabis-related studies and papers that have been published over the previous month.

But in March, research studies in mainstream media were few-and-far-between. Overshadowed by the sheer number of articles focused on the commercial prospects of cannabis, science dropped from the headlines and almost right off the bottom of the screen. And while this by-no-means suggests relatively little research was published in March in academic journals, what it did emphasise, is that suddenly, we seem to be equally interested in what cannabis might be able to do for us economically, as medically.

This recent swing in focus is interesting and may lead to a reinvigorated, though slightly different debate, with some pro and anti cannabis advocates suddenly finding themselves on the same side of the fence. Every day, we read comments and posts on social media from pro-cannabis advocates who use our page as a place to condemn commercialisation and regulation of cannabis (among other things), and anti-cannabis groups who fear the effect legalisation and commercialisation may have on the vulnerable.

So if evidence-based organisations like ours are more interested in the ongoing science than the economic agenda, and advocates seem firmly and audibly against commercialisation, why has it suddenly become a major focus of the media? A quick look at what has happened (and continues to happen) in parts of the USA where ‘Big Cannabis’ has started to model `Big Tobacco', and a cynic has to wonder if that private sector marketing machine is already in full swing…

Cannabis commercialisation

In March, one of the most notable media stories looked at the recently-released University of Sydney Business School white paper, ‘Medicinal cannabis in Australia: science, regulation and industry’.

The paper, of interest to Government, anti-cannabis and pro-cannabis support groups alike, focused on the potential impact of introducing medical cannabis to Australia, stating the industry could conservatively be worth more than $100 million in the first year. And while some will take this as an even greater sign that cannabis is the way forward (not just in medicine but in business), others are throwing their arms up in despair, concerned commercialisation and economic focus will ensure the drug is firmly out of financial reach of those who supposedly need it most.

Of most note, was the estimate that Australia’s demand for medical cannabis could be as high as 8,000kg per year, based on markets in Israel, Canada and the Netherlands. And while this is an almost breath taking number, it is worth remembering this may only be the case if Australia’s regulations are similar to those in the countries listed. If, however, Australia takes its own, more heavily-regulated and controlled approach, where plants will need to be refined into pharmaceutical grade products, this estimate could be even higher (no pun intended).

Finally, worthy of note is the media release for the paper which states: “The Business School’s analysis found that a medical cannabis industry in Australia could potentially help tens-of-thousands of patients suffering from a wide variety of pain”. While this may be accurate from a distribution perspective, at this point, research has yet to ascertain the efficacy of cannabis as a pain treatment.

While the paper is interesting and has certainly raised some eye-brows in a number of circles, spurring on the medical legalisation debate, both pro and anti cannabis supporters still seem to have a lot of concerns about the possible commercialisation and regulation of the drug. At NCPIC, our biggest concern is ongoing research – at this point, there are a lot of theories and a lot of claims relating to medical cannabis, and while the research is picking-up pace, it has a long way to go before scientists will be satisfied cannabis is the best, most effective and safe treatment for the extensive range of illnesses it is claimed to treat. Let’s hope research continues!

In other news, Israel is working to establish itself as the industry leader when it comes to medical cannabis, with the second annual CannaTech conference held earlier in March. The event was attended by academics, scientists and entrepreneurs. While the conference centred on research and new discoveries – such as the cannabis plants with the highest levels of THC and those developed to have no THC at all – it was noted the industry could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel which hopes to export technology to the US medical cannabis market – a market that is estimated to reach $US100 billion by 2029 (as per Ackrel Capital’s report).

Cannabis legalisation

Last month, the Commonwealth Department of Health dominated the cannabis media headlines as legislation relating to a new system for regulated medical cannabis cultivation was introduced, and passed through parliament. During March, the mainstream media and even niche blogs continued to proclaim ‘medical cannabis is now legal’, emphasising the media’s confusion about the new legislation.

To get things straight, Australia’s drug possession laws are actually determined at a state and territory level. Despite this, the Federal Government controls laws around supply and imports, and is somewhat restricted as Australia is party to international conventions limiting supply of illicit narcotic drugs.

What this means is that if states had legalised possession of medical cannabis, actually getting it into Australia would have been difficult due to federal laws and international treaties. The legislative changes last month simply pave the way for Government-controlled and regulated medical cannabis grows (you still can’t grow at home or distribute home-made products) which clarifies some aspects of supply.

At this point though, other than the option NSW police have to use discretion and not fine or charge a person in possession of cannabis on compassionate grounds, no state or territory has recently changed possession rules. This means, unless you are registered in the terminal illness cannabis access scheme (TICS) in NSW (and police can still charge you if they want to), or are taking part in the official state-based trials, possession of non-pharmaceutical cannabis for medicinal use is not legal.

The legislative changes were a big step closer to medical access (albeit highly regulated) in Australia, but won’t affect most people at this stage.

To emphasise this point, last month, The Guardian reported a Queensland father was convicted and sentenced to a two-year good behaviour bond, after he secretly administered what he purchased as cannabis oil, to his two-year-old daughter while she was in hospital undertaking cancer treatment,

Cannabis research

In March, the University of California released results from their latest study which explored the social impact of regular cannabis use. While keeping in mind the challenge of considering some yet unknown confounding factors, the results of this well conducted study showed regular cannabis users experienced downward social mobility and more financial problems than non-users. Regular users also had more antisocial behaviours at work and more relationship problems. The report showed cannabis and alcohol users had similar declines in social class, but cannabis users were more likely to have financial difficulties.

Another interesting but preliminary study, conducted by Rosalind University in North Chicago, indicated habitual cannabis use may inhibit the brain from maturing properly. In addition, a study published by Neuropharmacology found cannabidiol (CBD) “induces rapid-acting, anti-depressant-like effects” on genetically modified mice. Again, very early work with much more research, including human studies required.

The March swing towards a focus on the economic impact of cannabis has demonstrated another side of the debate which has thus-far been relatively low key in Australia. It will be interesting to see if this angle continues on into 2016.