Why so few Australians are using medicinal cannabis on prescription
Medicinal cannabis on prescription? Professor Ian Mc Gregor from the University of Sydney wrote an important article in the Sunday Morning Herald.
A resounding 85 per cent of Australians support legislation permitting the use of cannabis for medical purposes. And medical specialists can indeed apply to the Therapeutic Goods Administration to prescribe cannabis-based products to their patients under the Special Access and Authorised Prescriber schemes.
However, the most recent figures show that only 153 patients nationwide have been authorised to receive medicinal cannabis products under the Special Access Scheme. And only about 30 Australian doctors have been granted Authorised Prescriber status, prescribing cannabis products to a further 101 patients.
Meanwhile, we believe potentially 100,000 Australians are using cannabis to treat their medical conditions but because this is illegal, the true scale of this use is unknown.
An initial problem facing Australian patients seeking medicinal cannabis is that their GPs often know very little about it, and unlike Canada, where GPs can write you a script, a sympathetic Australian GP must enlist the support of a specialist to apply to the TGA for cannabis products.
But in Australia, the TGA is reluctant to approve the use of cannabis for the conditions for which it is most commonly used in the community: pain, insomnia and PTSD/anxiety.
So the TGA will grant access to patients with less common conditions – such as multiple sclerosis and intractable epilepsy – but not to the 20 per cent of Australians suffering from chronic pain.
Even if your specialist can convince the TGA that your condition is treatable with cannabis products, your mission is still incomplete. Your specialist/GP must also apply to their state or territory health department for further approval. This involves more form-filling and delay.
The TGA-approved products available to patients are extremely expensive. It may cost $120 a day to obtain cannabis products to treat a child with pediatric epilepsy, with no subsidy available from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Putting it all together, it becomes clear why only 250 or so Australians have access to officially sanctioned medicinal cannabis products.
In striking comparison, Canada has more than 200,000 officially approved patients, and Israel more than 30,000.
Rescheduling of non-intoxicating, low-THC cannabis products as over-the-counter medicines might also be considered. When manufactured according to best practice, these products are no more hazardous than many of the nutraceuticals on pharmacy shelves.
Let’s rethink our strategy and make medicinal cannabis products readily available to Australians in need.
Professor Iain McGregor is academic director of the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at the University of Sydney.