Olivia Newton-John’s plea: Improve access to medicinal cannabis in Australia

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Australia since 2016, but confusion around access remains.

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Australia since 2016, but confusion around access remains. Photo: Getty

Australian doctors broadly support the use of medicinal cannabis, but lack the confidence and knowledge to prescribe it for eligible patients, a new study has revealed.

Since the drug was legalised in Australia in 2016 for medical purposes it has been fraught with legal and prescription confusion.

Led by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, the global review of 26 studies found that doctors, nurses and pharmacists are unclear specifically how medicinal cannabis is used, its psychiatric effects, and how it is legislated and supplied.

Made from the cannabis sativa plant, medical marijuana has been shown to relieve pain, prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting, and have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Olivia Newton-John is among its high-profile supporters, revealing she uses the drug with other medicines for “pain maintenance and sleep”.

Olivia Newton-John is a major advocate for medicinal cannabis. Photo: Getty

The 70-year-old icon and breast cancer survivor recently issued a public plea for authorities to improve patient access to medicinal cannabis, before the premiere of new Australian documentary High As Mike, which examines the many barriers to access.

“It is not compassionate or kind that they are making it so difficult for people because I am proof it works,” Ms Newton-John told The Sunday Telegraph.

“You don’t die from cannabis yet we have a terrible opiate problem in the world – people dying of opiates. Cannabis can take the place of opiates and people will not be dying,” she said.

Throw away the red tape and make it accessible to people who are in pain and suffering and be compassionate.”

The study’s release on Tuesday comes as new official figures demonstrate that while medical marijuana use is on the rise in Australia, access remains highly restricted.

Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) figures from May 2019 show that the regulator has approved more than 6400 scripts for medicinal cannabis under its special access scheme – with the vast majority (5880) of these occurring in the past 12 months.

The special access scheme, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis, is intended for exceptional clinical circumstances, and only some patients are eligible. People with chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, childhood epilepsy and anorexia are among the most commonly approved cases.

Some patients may also be eligible to access the drug through clinical trials or under the Authorised Prescriber Scheme, which allows doctors to prescribe cannabis without further TGA approval.

However, as at April 2019, only 57 health professionals had been approved under the authorised prescriber scheme.

Australian patients are finding it difficult to access medical cannabis. Photo: Getty

The medicine watchdog has been criticised for making it too difficult for patients to access the drug, and it is estimated that more than 100,000 people could be self-prescribing cannabis for medical purposes.

Complicating matters further, the rules around access and prescribing  vary by state and territory – leaving many sick Australians struggling to understand the legal process and turning to the black market for treatment.

A six-month investigation by The New Daily revealed that vulnerable patients were sold fake and dangerous chemicals manufactured in backyard labs, at a cost of $6000 for up to a three-month supply.

Of the 14 different samples that were obtained and analysed, 13 products were found to have no medicinal value, contained hazardous chemicals or were heavily intoxicating.

Where to get more information

To determine your eligibility for medicinal cannabis, speak to your doctor or specialist about your options.

Questions to ask your doctor may include:

  • Has medicinal cannabis been shown to work for my condition?
  • Is it safe for me to use?
  • How will it affect my other medications?
  • What side effects can I expect?

For the latest updates on medicinal cannabis for chronic pain, you can click here to register to attend an information session held by Chronic Pain Australia in your city.

Click here to read more about the TGA’s medicinal cannabis access schemes.

State-specific information is also available by following the below links:

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