Medicinal Cannabis in Australia

The phenomena of medicinal cannabis in the western world is evident with thousands of people using, and looking to use it, to treat a variety of ailments where mainstream medicine has so far been ineffective.
Every day there are positive stories being relayed of how cannabis helps people cope with a diverse range of problems – it aids sleeping, helps with anxiety, induces weight gain for cancer patients, and can alleviate nausea, to name just a few.
Prohibition stagnated the science that could have happened in order to gain a thorough understanding of the complexities of the plant and how best to use it. Great developments in this area have been proceeding around the world for years.
In February 2016, the Australian Federal Government passed legislation that amended the Narcotic Drugs Act, allowing the supply of suitable medicinal cannabis products for the management of painful and chronic conditions. Whilst this is a great step forward, it does not include the provision of medicinal grade herbal cannabis, only processed, non-smokeable medicinal grade products.
Products available in Australia are limited and not necessarily what consumers want or need in order to treat the diverse problems, particularly pain management.
Thousands are opting to use cannabis illegally.
There are some unregistered pharmaceutical cannabinoids (the active constitutes contained in cannabis), that can be obtained by particular patients through the Special Access Scheme (SAS). The SAS is a programme which allows therapeutic goods that are not registered in Australia to be supplied with Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) approval under specific circumstances by a physician with a Schedule 8 permit.
However, with the doors now open, there is a surge of research and clinical trials currently underway, yet it can be slow and expensive. A good clinical trial can cost up to ten million dollars. Rigorous testing has to take place before cannabis based medicine is deemed safe for the general population to use and be on the register.
Current figures of patients registered in Australia receiving treatment are only in the early hundreds compared to Canada which has about 75,000 patients who access medicinal cannabis. This is according to Professor Iain McGregor who is the Director of the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics, at the University of Sydney.
Professor McGregor says the ‘the overwhelming majority of Australians want compassionate access to medicinal cannabis for people who have intractable pain, and who have unbearable conditions.’
The Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Amendment Regulation allows doctors to apply to the NSW Health Board to prescribe cannabis-based products that are not currently on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods, but they will need approval from both the TGA and NSW Health before they can prescribe an unregistered cannabis-based product.
Finding a licensed doctor to prescribe can be very difficult. Health providers don’t know the first thing about cannabis and are reluctant to advise until there is some strong evidence-based data showing how it can treat certain conditions that other medicine fails to do.
It is still a slow boat to China.
In order to move forward, the gap between the legislative reality and community requirements and activities needs to be bridged.
There has been some progress happening thanks in part to people like the late advocate of cannabis Daniel Haslam, whose appearance on the show ‘Australian Story’, has been enlightening and demonstrated the positive aspects of how cannabis helped with his struggle with living with cancer.
Some politicians are getting on board. The Victorian government gave a $28.5 million package for research which will ensure that children with severe epilepsy receive the relief needed. Premier Daniel Andrews said ‘never again will families have to make the heartbreaking choice between watching their children suffer and breaking the law.’ The NSW government pledged $12 million to further research.
Cannabis is still illegal for recreational use and this makes it even more difficult for example, to source for trialling.
There is still a stigma attached to using cannabis and false information out there like that of ‘The Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ who choose to focus on reports of potential side effects instead of taking the variables such as age, and quality of the product, into consideration. Often using cannabis is a last resort for desperate people who have tried everything.
The Greens presented ‘The Australian Cannabis Agency Bill’ in the Senate in November last year which seeks to have a more regulated market, with an agency set up to oversee such things as access and quality, just like other markets. ‘The poppy industry is a successful government regulated and supported industry. We hope the Liberals will emulate its success and regulation of medicinal cannabis’ said the Greens MP Andrea Dawkins in Parliament.
The question is how long will this take? meanwhile families are using it illegally and they don’t know for sure of the quality they are getting.
Barry Lambert, the catalyst for the Lambert Initiative with his donation of $34 million (to be rolled out over a ten year period), has seen how cannabis helped eradicate the aggressive seizures his granddaughter was having, one seizure going on for over 2 hours. He believes people should be able to take cannabis whilst the research is taking place.
In Australia there are at least 15 registered companies of the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) but so far nothing is cultivated locally. Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) need to be in place before we have a system in Australia up and running to meet the high demand.
Many companies are conducting their own research in order to be a part of this lucrative market that can not only help with medicine. If you consider that hemp needs half the amount of water than cotton and produces 200 per cent more fibre you realise how big the possibilities are.
In moving forward there are a few things to consider:-
The science needs to continue. There are so many pharmacological properties in cannabis and we are gaining a greater understanding of the different strands of the plant and where and how it can be used. This needs to coincide with the setting up of an industry in Australia where the testing can take place using locally cultivated cannabis, which in turn would benefit from having our own market instead of relying on importing the product.
Education for health professionals as well as the general population is needed, but first all players need to get on board and be on the same page.

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