By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
The Turnbull government passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill in February 2016. The ensuing legislation set up a licensing scheme to allow for “the cultivation and production of cannabis and cannabis resin for medicinal and scientific purposes.”
A handful of licences were issued within the first few months, and many more were in various stages of determination. Recognising it would be some time before locally produced cannabis-based products would be available, the Health Minister Greg Hunt set up an importation scheme.
But two years after the legislation was enacted, medicinal cannabis is still notoriously difficult to access.
Benefits of medicinal cannabis
The potential value of medicinal cannabis in treating a wide range of conditions has been confirmed by scientific research in a number of countries.
The medicine has been found to ease the discomfort associated with chemotherapy, to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis and to reduce seizures in cases of severe epilepsy. Cannabis medicines have also been widely recognised for their ability to provide relief for those living with chronic pain.
The problem is that doctors can’t prescribe the medicine unless they have been specifically authorised to do so. And even if they could, it is unlikely the local chemist would stock what you need. And on top of that, the limited availability makes the cost of the medicine beyond the reach of ordinary people.
In fact, the very same federal and state laws that made medicinal cannabis legal have such restrictive rules and regulations, that accessing the medicine is impossible for many.
Bureaucracy limits access
Medicinal cannabis campaigners such as Lucy Haslam are baffled – they say there are hurdles at every step of the process, from cultivating the plant and manufacturing the medicine, through to prescribing and dispensing it to patients.
Only one medicinal cannabis product has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – the government department that allows medications to be legally distributed in Australia.
To legally obtain any other cannabis-based product, patients must apply to the government on an individual basis. If the product contains THC – the element that gives cannabis its dissociative effect – approval is required from both the state and federal governments.
Applications must be completed by a specialist medical practitioner, not a local GP, and the specialist must establish a case for why medicinal cannabis should be used instead of another drug that already exists on the TGA register.
Of the 64 applications for access to medicinal cannabis made to NSW Health between August 2016 and October 2017, more than 40 were sent back for further information. Eighteen were rejected entirely.
Only a handful of people have so far been granted access to medicinal cannabis – roughly 150 people across the entire country.
As mentioned, another barrier is the high cost of treatment – making medicinal cannabis products unaffordable for many ordinary Australians, and is not covered by Medicare.
It is hoped that when Australia begins to actually establish its own local production, supply will increase and the medicine will be more affordable.
The black market is thriving
It has been reported that as a result, the unauthorised supply of cannabis medicines is thriving.
There are producers who are simply trying to do the right thing – to provide a medicine to chronically ill people which they cannot otherwise access.
They have seen the benefits of the drug first hand. But despite their goodwill, these suppliers are being raided, arrested, charged and sent to court to face the prospect of a criminal record or even imprisonment.
Meanwhile, the bureaucracy continues to fail those in need.