AUTHOR: Nadia Daly
Medicinal cannabis was legalised in Australia two years ago, but patients and doctors are still struggling to access the drug and say the barriers and bureaucracy are driving thousands of people to a flourishing black market.
Simon Sweeting suffered chronic back pain for decades after a fracture and several surgeries.
For years he sought relief from a cocktail of opioids and other painkillers, but when the pain got worse and the side effects from the medication became too much, his GP began the long process of applying for permission to prescribe medical cannabis.
“[My GP] was denied by the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration]. [Then] my specialist tried to apply, and he was denied by NSW Health and the TGA,” he said.
Two years later, with the help of a lawyer working pro-bono, Mr Sweeting obtained a prescription and his cannabis medication, no longer needing his other painkillers.
He is one of 500 Australians who now use medicinal cannabis legally.
But Luke Conroy, a supplier of medicinal cannabis, said thousands more patients were forced to obtain the drug through the black market.
“In effect, legal doesn’t mean available,” Mr Conroy said.
Mr Conroy said he supplied 5,000 patients with medicinal cannabis who have been unable to obtain it legally through their doctor.
“It becomes such a difficult thing for people to procure, that in sheer desperation they turn to organisations like ours.”
Mr Sweeting was not surprised and said that without help from advocates, a lawyer and his dedicated GP, he would still be in pain and unable to access cannabis oil.
“It probably works out a little cheaper on the black market and it’s accessible to them quickly. I’m lucky I have access and I don’t need to use the black market anymore,” he said.
Calls for streamlined application process
The peak body representing general practitioners agreed the application process to obtain medicinal cannabis was far too onerous on the doctor, was convoluted and was different in each state and territory.
“Currently it’s a basket case here in Australia,” said Bastian Seidel, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and a practicing GP.
“It’s almost impossible [to get a prescription] and it’s impossible because of political reasons — that’s why I’ve called it political cannabis rather than medicinal cannabis.”
The organisation wanted to see the process for prescribing and accessing the drug streamlined across the country.
“There’s complete inconsistency,” Dr Seidel said.
However, he cautioned that medicinal cannabis was not the right drug for everyone and could only be used to treat certain conditions such as epilepsy, severe chronic pain and nausea in chemotherapy patients, after they had tried conventional treatments.
The Australian Medical Association took a more cautious approach and said more research needed to be done on the drug if it was to be made more widely availability.
“We know that there is a limited role for medicinal cannabis in certain conditions, it shouldn’t be a free for all,” said Tony Bartone, the AMA’s vice-president.
Health Minister Greg Hunt agreed the process needed to be simplified and said he had written to his state and territory counterparts on the issue.