United Nations, Weed Legalisation, and the Australian Addiction to Opium

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So… Why Isn’t Weed Legal Here Yet?

If you’re one of the millions led to believe that cannabis legalisation in Australia is just around the corner, then think again – for not everything is as it appears in the evening news… [6]

When it comes to cannabis legalisation, Australia has been taking its sweet time. Obviously, this could be viewed as a byproduct of the broader apathy and laziness that people generally experience while stoned (and there’s probably something to that)… but if you dig a little deeper, it’s wholly evident that there are powerful interests behind the criminalisation of this particular plant. Indeed, these interests rely upon the maintenance of a widely unpopular and unjust status quo.

The impetus to legalise cannabis as a medicine in Australia had begun in earnest a few years ago, with future developments for recreational legalisation looking promising. [6] In 2014, Senator Di Natale proposed legislation to the senate, outlining a system for regulating medicinal cannabis beyond the jurisdiction of the Government’s normal regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This legislation sought to create a ‘one stop shop’; a stand-alone, single-purpose body, responsible for research, licensing, manufacture, cultivation, supply, and import/export of cannabis. [6]

In February 2015, the bill was referred to the senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for review and counsel. After over six months of vigorous debate and consultation across a variety of areas and disciplines, the committee recommended the bill be passed into law. [6] However, the Australian Government had other ideas, feeling that cannabis should be subject to the rigid system of testing, registering and oversight of any other drug, based largely on the pharmaceutical model. [6]

Impacts of the INCB on Australian Drug Laws

Critics of the present scheme condemn the ODC/TGA regulations as far too restrictive. [6] Patient access is a lengthy and protracted process, with the Special Access Scheme (SAS) and the Authorised Prescriber scheme being the only means that patients can legally get hold of the drug. To make matters worse, ministers tweaked the SAS so that the category designed for the terminally ill was not applicable for cannabis after the regulations came into effect. [6] This means that the one patient group most in need of medicine on grounds of compassion is being made to wait longer periods for a successful application. Time which many of them simply do not have. [6]

Why would our regulators do this? Well, it turns out that the Australian Government is concerned with how the medicinal cannabis bill would contravene international treaty obligations under the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. [6] Okay… but why does it matter? After all, while there are many reasons to follow international law, the treaties we sign are ultimately non-binding… right?

Well… when your country is one of the primary producers of opium, and the continuation of that legal industry relies upon that very same international treaty, they’re a little more binding than you would think. Australia cultivates well over half the world’s poppies used to make prescription opioid medicines. The 1961 document places the same restrictions on cannabis as it does cocaine, heroin and other opiates; and opium is a highly lucrative industry. Australia has maintained a monopoly on legal opium for years now, and the government doesn’t want to see it jeopardised. If they were to legalise cannabis on a federal level, this is exactly what they would be doing.

Today, the inclusion of cannabis within the Single Convention is widely criticised as policy that fails to keep pace with science. [6] Even still, the United Nations has continually sustained their hardline stance on what they consider ‘illicit’ drugs. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) made it clear in their 2017 annual report that they are deeply concerned with the spread of cannabis legalisation across the globe. [1] On the INCB board, the pharmaceutical companies that produce Oxycontin are well represented.  Advocates for cannabis legalisation, on the other hand, have no seat at the table. [1]

In response to Canada’s recent decision to legalise cannabis, the INCB recently stated that in moving forward with legalisation for non-medical purposes, in disregard of its legal obligations and diplomatic commitments, the government of Canada has contributed to weakening the international legal drug control framework and undermining the rules-based international order. [2]

Tasmania: Thebaine Mecca

As established earlier, the United Nations regulates poppy agriculture to keep the plants off the black market and ensure there are enough painkillers to meet world demand. [5] Tasmania currently grows around half of the world’s legal opium poppies, and 85 percent of the world’s thebaine; an opium poppy extract used to make OxyContin and other similar pain management drugs. [4] Tassie also produces all of the world’s oripavine, which is an extract used to treat heroin overdoses and other addictions. It also accounts for a quarter of the world’s morphine and codeine. [4] This quiet island lies at the beginning of a global supply chain, encompassing the largest drug companies on Earth. Each year, the industry produces $12 billion in opiate painkillers, to be shipped globally. [4]

Tasmania’s dominance of poppy production emerged with the rapid rise of OxyContin and other thebaine-based drugs in the 1990s. Thebaine, unlike morphine, was not included in the American government’s policy of buying 80 percent of opiate raw material from Turkey and India. This allowed Glaxo and Johnson & Johnson, as well as the drug companies that bought from them, to turn almost entirely to the isolated island of Tasmania for the raw materials needed for newer painkillers and addiction treatments. [4]

Every November, highly securitised Tasmanian fields emerge carpeted in pink flowers, with an occasional splash of white or mauve. These flowers produce the morphine for most modern analgesics, as well as thebaine for specialist drugs like buprenorphine and oxycodone. Then the flowers drop away, leaving behind distinctive, cup-shaped pods. These pods are packed with tiny poppy seeds, as well as an opium latex surrounding them. When the latex dries two months later, the pods are harvested and hauled to factories, where machinery separates the seeds and grinds up the product to extract the valuable narcotic alkaloids. [4]

Tight regulations, a half-century of assiduous plant breeding and a gentle climate have given Tasmania a tight grip on the production of raw materials, which are of great importance to the pharmaceutical industry. [4] Tasmania has the highest abuse rate for the pharmaceutical opiate painkiller Oxycodone, and the second highest abuse of morphine and methadone in the country. Ironically, a lot of thebaine ends up as Oxycodone. [5]

The worldwide boom in sales for OxyContin and its siblings have resulted in a trebling of Tasmania’s poppy acreage since the late 1990s – today, there are nearly 30,000 hectares, or 74,000 acres. Poppies tailored for thebaine production constitute around two-thirds of Tasmania’s crop, with morphine poppies an additional quarter, and codeine and a few other alkaloids making up the rest. [4]

Further, the bulk of the opium poppy extract being produced in Tasmania is shipped to pharmaceutical factories in the Northeastern United States, which fuel the opiate epidemic. Nearly 200,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses since 2000. That number has contributed to a recent fall in life expectancy for white Americans, the main abusers of both prescription and illegal opioids. In 2015, opioid overdoses killed 33,000 Americans, and while fentanyl and heroin are the fastest-growing categories of drugs involved, prescription drugs have often been the pathways to their use. [3] With a largely private health care system, and an alienated population willing to pay up for drugs, the US accounts for over three-quarters of global opiate painkiller sales today.

Poppy Economy

Opium is a huge industry for Tasmania, and many other players want in. The two manufacturers that dominate Tasmanian opium extract production have begun an arms race of diversifying supply sources and altering the plant’s genome to produce a stronger, more productive crop. GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson have acted in myriad ways to ensure reliable supplies – and maintain their piece of the global market share. [4]

Big Pharma is beginning to realise the risks of producing all their thebaine in a single geographic location. As such, they have pushed for regulatory approval to cultivate opium poppies for export on the Australian mainland, near Melbourne. [4] “They look at the map of the world, see Tasmania at the bottom, and say, ‘Are we… putting all our eggs in one basket?’ ” said Steve Morris, the general manager of opiates for GlaxoSmithKline. [4] New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory have followed with legislation allowing for poppy growing. [3]

Not all is well for Australian opium producers, however. In response to the epidemic, the DEA in the United States announced cuts of at least 25% to the 2017 production quotas for opioids, including those based on thebaine compounds oxycodone (like OxyContin) and hydrocodone, as well as those based on codeine and morphine. The effect on Tasmanian opioid production will be particularly marked. [3]

Dark Money

So, if you’re still wondering why cannabis is illegal in Australia, just follow the trail of money. Huge multinationals, in cahoots with our political representatives, simply do not want it to happen. It would mean sacrificing billions in revenue from an industry that Australians are veritably hooked on, in more ways than one.

Just as there is a crisis in America, deaths from opioid overdose have risen to about 800 a year in the land down under. Of these, about 30% involve heroin, the rest pharmaceutical opioids. Our doctors prescribe some three million courses of opioids each year, about a quarter of them for three months or longer. Around 50,000 Australians are undergoing treatment for opioid addiction, mostly using methadone or buprenorphine (opioids to fight opioids). The majority of them reportedly started using opioids in oral form for a pain condition. [3]

Cannabis is kept illegal in Australia because we couldn’t possibly go against those treaties that legally allow us to produce the same opium that kills our family members, our friends and our neighbours. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Australians live without access to clean, effective ways of managing pain – such as CBD oil. Instead, they turn to prescription painkillers in the face of chronic and debilitating pain – and many of those people experience horrific cycles of addiction and withdrawal. All this death and suffering; all legal, and all  in the name of profit.

Sources Cited:

[1] Leafly – United Nations Report Scolds Countries for Cannabis Legalization (March 12, 2018):
https://www.leafly.com/news/politics/united-nations-report-scolds-countries-for-cannabis-legalization

[2] DW – UN Drugs Board Slams Canada Cannabis Legalisation (October 17th, 2018)
https://www.dw.com/en/un-drugs-board-slams-canada-cannabis-legalization/a-45932578

[3] The Monthly – The New Opium Wars (February 2017)
https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2017/february/1485867600/hamish-mcdonald/new-opium-wars

[4] The New York Times – Shake-Up on Opium Island (July 19th, 2014)
https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/business/international/tasmania-big-supplier-to-drug-companies-faces-changes.html
[5] VICE – Australia is About to Grow Even More Opium Poppies (April 8th, 2014)
https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/7b7k84/australia-is-about-to-grow-even-more-opium-poppies

[6] FX Medicine – The Legalisation of Medicinal Cannabis in Australia: Where are we now? (November 23rd, 2017)
https://www.fxmedicine.com.au/blog-post/legalisation-medicinal-cannabis-australia-where-are-we-now/

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Selina Cantrell

MMJ should be legalized. Alternative medicine is more accepted nowadays due to its promising results unlike pharmaceutical medicine, alternative medicine doesn’t give a negative effect such as kidney and liver problems when it comes to long term use. As for my alternative medicine usage, I use medical marijuana. The different strain has a variety of uses and effects depending on your needs. Like this marijuana strain https://blimburnseeds.com/cannabis/american-genetics/grandaddy-purple-seeds. This strain has a very potent effect on chronic pains like back pain and joint pain and a lot more. The benefits of marijuana, specifically the CBD cannabinoid, are undeniable. Let’s take a… Read more »