How Australians can access (legal) cannabis

By Meagan Evans. Published at Jul 12, 2019, in The 420 Report

The numerous medicinal benefits offered by therapeutic cannabis are finally beginning to gain widespread recognition in Australia — both in the general population and the medical community.

It’s now been over three years since the February 2016, Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 was passed by Parliament. The Bill allowed for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis in Australia and its provision to patients in need of it for therapeutic purposes.

Yet it’s still not easy to get a medicinal cannabis prescription in Australia — even after the Federal Government relaxed restrictions in March 2018.

Firstly, many doctors are still reluctant to prescribe medicinal cannabis due to a simple lack of knowledge or experience around the drug.

Much of this comes down to Australian laws that prevent direct to consumer marketing of any drug. This leaves Australian doctors in the dark when it comes to the various cannabis brands as they have never been exposed to them. A stigma around cannabis still seems to exist, even amongst doctors.

Research undertaken by the University of Sydney’s Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics in mid-2018 found that two out of every three GPs had a patient ask about medicinal cannabis. However, many of the doctors didn’t feel that they had the necessary training to be confident in discussing treatments with patients.

As reported by the ABC, Sydney GP Dr Teresa Towpik was initially sceptical about the usefulness of medicinal cannabis.

She explained, "I was quite ignorant and arrogant as well. I saw it as a drug of addiction, a gateway drug”.

However, she has since become an advocate after researching the benefits and prescribing it to her chronic pain patients, saying “At least half of my patients have been able to reduce their pain medication or some of them even stop it”.

In addition, the process for obtaining a medicinal cannabis prescription is highly regulated.

Simply being a doctor isn’t enough — a medical practitioner must first gain authorisation from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to prescribe it.

Prescribing doctors must make an application to the TGA for a prescription for each individual patient through the Special Access Scheme (SAS) Category B, or they can apply to become an authorised prescriber. But this can be timely and complicated — in fact, the Lambert study mentioned above found that fewer than one in ten GPs understood how to navigate the complex system.

Yet it seems that practitioners are starting recognise the benefits. In June 2018, the TGA approved 146 SAS Category B applications, and in less than one year by May of this year, that figure had risen nine-fold to 1374.

The number of Medicinal Cannabis prescriptions in Australia is expected to reach 10,000 prescriptions this month, up from 3,100 as recently as January of this year. Prohibition Partners estimate that this figure could hit 400,000 by 2028.

Keep in mind that the current figure represents less than 5% of the reported cannabis users in Australia, given that many Australian cannabis users are still buying and possessing cannabis illegally for medicinal as well as recreational purposes.

Price is another barrier to access for many patients. As medicinal cannabis isn’t covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, patients pay out of pocket. For example, epilepsy patients pay an estimated $1000 per month, according to research by Cannabis Access Clinics, while Australian patients average spend for treatment is $370 per month.

Hopefully, as the benefits of medicinal cannabis gain further support, access will be improved — both financially and in a regulatory sense.

Not only is Australia slow to get off the ground when it comes to medicinal cannabis, but we’re falling behind in the recreational space. The recreational market could grow up to A$8.8 billion per annum in a decade if legalised say Prohibition Partners.

Legal cannabis for personal use is already a reality in Canada, Uruguay, and in multiple US states, while it has been decriminalised in many more. New Zealand is a step ahead of us too. The country is due to hold a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis for personal use next year.

Yet Australia has a huge potential market for legalised cannabis products. New Frontier Data estimate that the total current Australian cannabis market — legal and illegal— could be worth up to $6.3 billion, so it makes sense at least economically to catch up to the US, Canada and the like.

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