Big changes are happening in the world of medical cannabis. It is a hot topic, with the news of Canada legalising cannabis across the board on October 17, 2018. There is movement around the world, including medical cannabis being available on prescription in England, Wales, Scotland and England from November 1, 2018.
In Australia, medical cannabis was legalised in 2016 and a 2015 Roy Morgan survey showed 91 per cent of Australians agreed that the use of cannabis for medical purposes should be legal. Interestingly, the strongest support came from those aged 50-plus, with 94 per cent in support.
Medical cannabis products are now available for doctors to prescribe in Australia, although they are currently considered ‘unregistered medicines’, requiring the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in the Department of Health to approve prescription requests.
The TGA has approved applications for the use of medical cannabis products including, but not limited to, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, refractory paediatric epilepsy, palliative care indications, cancer pain, neuropathic pain, spasticity from neurological conditions, anorexia and wasting associated with chronic illness (such as cancer).
GPs need more information and support
“Doctors in Australia can now prescribe medical cannabis to their patients, although rules are different in each state and territory. New Zealand has a slightly more restrictive framework than Australia but that is currently being reformed. It is not yet legal in any other Asia-Pacific nations,” says cannabis industry expert Mr Rhys Cohen.
He is also the Senior Project Officer at the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at The University of Sydney, who were behind a recent study which showed many doctors feel they don’t have enough knowledge in this area and most rate their level of knowledge of medical cannabis as poor.
This is despite 61.5 per cent of GPs having had at least one query regarding medical cannabis in the previous three months and 7.5 per cent having more than five queries. More than half of the GPs in the study agreed with the statement that medicinal cannabis should be available on prescription for certain indications.
“The numbers tell the story,” Cohen adds. “In Australia since 2016 we’ve had about 1500 people get access to these unregistered medicinal cannabis products. In Canada the number is 300,000 people and rising.”
Strict controls on access
Many people with serious medical conditions are asking their GP or medical specialist about medical cannabis, although it is important to know not all health specialists will consider or be able to prescribe it.
You will need to fit specific requirements to be allowed access.
Medical professionals first need to show there is a good reason they are recommending this product over a registered medicine.
It is up to the Federal Health Department to OK whether or not a doctor or specialist can prescribe a medical cannabis product.
Doctors also need to show they recognise the potential side effects. And there’s a patchwork quilt of additional regulations at the State/Territory level.
One of the biggest issues in this area is the fact that medicinal cannabis products have not yet gone through the normal pharmaceutical drug development processes (including large-scale clinical trials) and are therefore ‘unregistered medicines’. While clinical trials are now underway in at least two Australian States – with the Victorian and NSW governments partnering with medical cannabis producer Tilray Inc to evaluate its use in paediatric epilepsy treatments and to prevent nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients – the fact that medicinal cannabis products currently remain unregistered medicines makes them difficult for doctors to prescribe. But even these unregistered medicines must comply with strict quality and safety standards.
But even these unregistered medicines must comply with strict Australian quality and safety standards.
“In contrast, in California for example, you can grow your own medical cannabis in your house if you want. You can get a license to grow a bunch of plants in a field somewhere with no real safety or quality control and then sell it wholesale to a store, which can sell it to someone who’s got permission from a doctor to purchase it,” adds Cohen.