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Medicinal cannabis puts lawyers at nexus of science and law

user iconFelicity Nelson 05 August 2015 NewLaw

Cutting-edge medical research often calls for support from science-literate lawyers, no more so than in the legalisation of contentious drugs, such as medicinal marijuana, says Dr Teresa Nicoletti.

Dr Nicoletti (pictured) is a partner at Piper Alderman who is currently advising players in the emerging medicinal cannabis industry in Australia. 

She spoke with Lawyers Weekly following an important breakthrough: the approval of a new medicinal cannabis trial by NSW Premier Mike Baird last week.

These trials, led by a team at UNSW, will examine whether vapourised cannabis can help 30 terminally ill patients by relieving symptoms including fatigue, nausea and insomnia.

Under Australian law, all commercial, personal and medicinal use of cannabis containing greater than 0.5 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is currently prohibited.

The only exception to this is a drug called Sativex, which is used to treat muscle spasticity in multiple sclerosis sufferers. Cannabis can also be used in government-approved research projects undertaken by public institutions, which is why the NSW trials can proceed without breaking the law.

However, the legalisation of cannabis for more general medicinal purposes remains controversial. 

“Political, public and scientific support for legalisation … has been understandably divided because of concerns about the increased potential for [abuse that] would arise if the current legislative prohibitions [are lifted],” said Dr Nicoletti.

“However, from a medical point of view, cannabis-derived products containing low levels of THC do not exhibit the psychoactive properties of cannabis, and therefore are not prone to abuse or misuse.”

Dr Nicoletti said there has been a significant push for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in the past 12 months.

The medical profession and the public are starting to recognise the potential benefits of cannabis for people with conditions such as epilepsy, chronic pain and Alzheimer’s disease, she said.

Dr Nicoletti is engaged in discussions with government about the legislative changes needed to allow the medicinal cannabis industry to lawfully operate in Australia.

She was also recently on the front lines, advising on the acquisition of Australian cannabis production and extraction company, Cannabinoid Extracts Australia.

This deal presented unique challenges for Dr Nicoletti’s team as the young cannabinoid industry operates in an uncertain regulatory environment, under the intense scrutiny of legislators and the public.

She admitted that her involvement in this area has been “very challenging at times” but said it has also been “very exciting and rewarding”.

“The deal recognised the enormous potential that a medicinal cannabis industry has in Australia, both in terms of local and export production,” she said.

Dr Nicoletti said changes to Commonwealth and State/Territory legislation are ultimately required to legalise medicinal cannabis. 

However, there have been a few promising developments. The Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill 2014 introduced into Parliament by Senator Di Natale last November seeks to establish a Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis.

This would effectively make the federal government responsible for overseeing the production, distribution and use of medicinal cannabis. 

The bill was referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by the Senate in February this year. The committee is due to deliver its report on 10 August.

An interdisciplinary practice

Dr Nicoletti is both a scientist and a lawyer, with a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry from the University of Western Australia.

“My practice at Piper Alderman heavily draws on my previous background in the pharmaceutical industry and PhD qualifications in science,” Dr Nicoletti said.

“Clients come to us because we speak the same language as them,” she said. “We are able to digest scientific and technical information with ease.”

Her practice involves a mix of legal, scientific and commercial issues, across a range of industries.

Each member of her team has qualifications in both science and law, including PhD qualifications in chemistry and neuroscience, and degrees in pharmacology, physiology and molecular genetics. 

Her practice group is often required to review scientific literature and analyse data in the course of preparing legal advice.

“I definitely believe that the legal profession could benefit from more practitioners that have a dual background in science and law,” Dr Nicoletti said.