Doctors have warned that families are turning to drug dealers because the process of obtaining medicinal cannabis legally is too arduous, despite the Turnbull government legalizing its export earlier this month.
GPs are required not only to apply to the Therapeutic Goods Administration but also to undergo a similar process with their state or territory health department, prompting calls for a streamlining of the “byzantine” bureaucracy that governs the substance.
Just 350 Australian patients have been given legal access to cannabis-based medicines since 1992, including 323 since restrictions were eased in 2016.
Julian Fidge, a GP and pharmacist in Wangaratta, 250km northeast of Melbourne, said he had managed to prescribe cannabis for pain once before “but the amount of time and outrageous demands for detailed, unnecessary minutiae from multiple doctors makes it impossible”.
“First I have to apply to the TGA, which takes about 15 minutes I don’t have, like the majority of my colleagues who work in, ironically, federally designated areas of need in districts of workforce shortage,” Dr Fidge told The Australian.
“Then I have to find and supply the relevant research, and it is not enough for the pain specialist, with whom I have a strong working relationship, to suggest it; he has to specify proportions and strengths, as my (pharmaceutical) qualifications and experience obviously are insufficient to satisfy a departmental clerk.
“It is as though cannabis is a new drug to the Health Department, which we know little or nothing about, not the subject of 30 years of research.
“Finally, having gotten the federal permit, I then have to get a state permit as well.”
Cardiologist Ross Walker, who is on the board of the Medical Cannabis Council and European-base medical cannabis company MGC Pharmaceuticals, said there was a clear inconsistency between the administration of medical cannabis and prescription narcotics.
“We now have more deaths from prescription narcotics than we do heroin overdoses, and yet it is much easier to prescribe narcotics than cannabis,” he said.
Dr Walker warned of the risks associated with people resorting to obtaining cannabis through drug dealers.
“There’s an element of the population who think that all forms of cannabis are completely harmless.
“They’re not, and that’s dangerous,” Dr Walker said.
“You need responsible people with training, such as doctors and pharmacists, to be prescribing these drugs, and we need them to be pharmaceutical grade, so people know what they’re taking.
“We need government regulation, but at the moment it’s excessive.”
Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon said care needed to be taken when prescribing cannabis, but he was concerned that there were excessive barriers to people in need receiving treatment.
A spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt said claims that the current system for access to medicinal cannabis products in Australia was not working were incorrect.