Faster medicinal cannabis access in Australia – Expert Reaction

The Australian Federal Government has made changes to speed up access to medicinal marijuana, which patients will be required to request through their GP.

Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the change today, which he said would facilitate faster access to medicinal cannabis for patients with the necessary approvals. Imports by approved providers will be authorised for interim supply in Australia until domestic production meets local needs, he said.

New Zealand also recently changed the process for obtaining medicinal cannabis. Patients and their doctors will no longer need a Minister’s approval, but instead, applications will be processed by the Ministry of Health. Read expert reaction about that change.

The Australian Science Media Centre gathered expert reaction to today’s announcement. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Associate Professor David Allsop, Associate Director, Lambert Initiative, University of Sydney comments:

“The announcement by Minister Hunt to allow the import and local storage of medical cannabis from overseas is a welcome step towards unblocking access to those patients who most need this medicine.

“In having a local supply on hand, the timeline and costs of a patient getting access to medical cannabis products will be greatly streamlined.

“Prior to this change, patients have faced a lengthy process of navigating federal and state level permissions and import permits, and overseas suppliers needing to organise export permits – all at significant financial and time cost to the patient.

“These sourcing issues will now be dealt with in a faster more efficient manner.

“There are some potential flash points that need to be considered also, such as whether allowing bulk importation and storage from overseas will in anyway interfere with the Federal Government’s November 2016 legislation, designed to encourage local Australian companies to establish growing and manufacturing operations for medical cannabis here in Australia.

“It could be that allowing overseas importation lends significant competition to these emerging enterprises making it difficult to justify business models to investors.

“The announcement also does not solve an issue installed by the Federal Government in November 2016, when access to medical cannabis was removed from the Category A route of the TGA’s Special Access Scheme. Cannabis is the only scheduled drug to have been excluded from this route of access – meaning that terminally ill patients cannot gain ready access in the timeframes appropriate to their dire situation, despite being arguably one of the patient groups most likely to benefit.

“It also doesn’t change the fact that in order to gain access, a doctor still needs to make the application, but most doctors either do not know how to apply, do not have the required training or expertise to apply, or are politically or philosophically against supporting a medical cannabis application.”

Conflict of interest statement: A.Prof Allsop has received study drugs from GW Pharmaceuticals for clinical trials.

Dr David Caldicott, Emergency Consultant and Senior Clinical Lecturer in Medicine, Australian National University, comments:

“Working in this field for several years, you get to meet many extraordinary, strong people, frequently in terrible personal circumstance. One of these is Lucy Haslam, probably the single person most responsible for advancing the cause of medical cannabis in Australia. Her son, Dan, died last year, but while still alive, found great relief in the use of cannabis for his symptoms.

“There have been many promises made to patients and loved ones about medical cannabis in Australia – most have been broken. We apply ‘Dan’s Test’ to any development or proposition floated by others: “If Dan, or someone in Dan’s position were alive today, would initiative ‘x’ help them, right now, in any pragmatic way?” This is the measure against which development in the field needs to be assessed – the provable benefit to the patient, without the harm to society.

“It is possible that this might make life easier for patients in two months’ time. There is very little information available to the medical profession about the strains being grown, and the intended formulation. The special access schemes in place to allow prescribing remain opaque and cumbersome. We are regularly advised by the (Australian) authorities that Australia is evolving as the best practice leader in this space. The global evidence remains overwhelmingly to the contrary. The most comprehensive review of the literature that has ever been undertaken has been recently published by the prestigious and formidable National Academy of Sciences in the USA. The Australian colleges and associations who have to date been selectively citing science to support their own conclusions, which differ wildly to the conclusions of this report, have remained curiously silent since its release.

“It is clear that there are conditions for which medicinal cannabis has benefit, and should be made immediately available, as it is clear that there are conditions for which much more work is needed. Dithering because of political indecision, the tensions between Big Green and Big Pharma, and concerns regarding any threat to the Tasmanian opium market provides no reassurance to patients, nor security to the Australian public at large.”

Dr Delyse Hutchinson, Senior Research Fellow, National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC; Senior Research Fellow, Deakin University comments:

“We know, based on sound evidence, that there are potential harmful consequences linked to (unregulated) cannabis use, particularly in terms of mental health, cognition and educational outcomes. These harms are most strongly linked to regular and/or heavy use of the substance. Scientific research is urgently needed to understand whether regulated provision of cannabis for medicinal purposes is harmful. This is an important health funding priority, if cannabis will be available through the health system.”