Australia: Patients Driven To Break The Law As Medicinal Cannabis Remains Difficult To Access

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Photo Credit: NIKKI DAVIS-JONES

More than four months after medicinal cannabis ­became legal in Tasmania it has been approved for only two patients — despite an ­“explosion” in demand.

The Tasmanian Government’s Cannabis Access Scheme began on September 1, but only three applications for the treatment have been received and two approved.

Patient support groups are concerned the difficulties in gaining legal access to cannabis has created a surge in ­demand for illegal operators with poor quality controls.

Some GPs are also frustrated with the lengthy process to unlock access to the treatment for sick Tasmanians and question the logic ­behind moves to allow exports of medical cannabis while Australian patients struggle for prescriptions.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Bastian Seidel said Federal Government moves to allow Australian exports of the product sent a confusing message to sick patients.

“If I were a patient I would wonder: Does the government want me to move country to access the product?” he said.

The Federal Government this month said it would legalize exports of medical cannabis so the local hemp industry could expand.

Tasmanian Health Minister Michael Ferguson welcomed the change, and urged the local industry to take the lead in exporting the product.

But Dr Seidel questioned whether the announcements concerning medical cannabis were motivated more by political spin than patient care.

“Is this medicinal cannabis or political cannabis?” he said.

The GPs organization is calling for a simpler and ­nationally consistent ­approach to medicinal cannabis, as every state has different requirements for patients and doctors.

Dr Seidel was not surprised that only two patients had been approved for the treatment since it became legal in Tasmania, as the drug needed to be prescribed by a specialist and waiting lists for appointments could be lengthy.

Dr Seidel said he would like to see GPs allowed to prescribe medicinal cannabis, in partnership with specialists, as GPs generally had longer ­relationships with patients and knew what other treatments they had tried.

“We would always look for standard treatments first, but if those treatments have failed then medical cannabis might be an option for patients with a certain sort of epilepsy or ­patients with some chronic pain conditions,” he said.

“It might well be a treatment of last resort for quite a lot of medical conditions.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services said the GPs had previously backed the scheme in place.

“The Cannabis Access Scheme has been implemented to ensure that if a relevant medical specialist is of the opinion that a patient may benefit from what is an ­unproven drug, then they can apply and that application can be thoroughly assessed,” the spokesman said.

“The Tasmanian branch of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has endorsed the Government’s model, where an application must be made by a relevant medical specialist.”

Medical Cannabis Users Association of Tasmania secretary John Reeves said ­accessing the treatment legally was difficult for the people who most needed it.

“The rules you are meant to follow to get medical cannabis are so hard most people are not making it past their GP,” he said. “It’s woefully disorganized.”

Despite the official stumbling blocks, Mr Reeves said illegal access and use of the product was widespread in Tasmania because demand was so high.

But he said some people were reporting being left out of pocket and with inferior product by “dodgy backyard suppliers”.

Mr Reeves called for users of medicinal cannabis to be exempted from prosecution so they could register their use and be officially counted.

Lyn Cleaver, from Cannabis Awareness Tasmania, said the support groups were fielding larger numbers of queries from people wanting advice about treatment.

“Every week we are getting calls from people desperate to try it … we are telling them to go to their doctor,” she said.

Ms Cleaver’s 26-year-old son suffers epilepsy, and his neurologist has applied for medicinal cannabis but the application is still pending.

Ms Cleaver said the wait was frustrating, and the load on specialists would lighten if GPs were allowed to prescribe the drug.

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