A large percentage of Australians are unaware that we have a medical cannabis industry, let alone understand the complex inner workings of the endocannabinoid system and therapeutic benefits of individual cannabinoids. And how could they? The cannabis plant has been stigmatised, demonised and under-researched for the best part of the last century thanks to a wildly effective negative propaganda campaign. As such, the cannabis industry requires patients, evidence and strong advocates to bring Citizen Jo(e) up to speed. A great starting point is the rapid growth of the Federal Government’s approval for Australians being prescribed plant medicine.
By The Numbers
To date, well over 150,000 applications for medical cannabis to be prescribed to Australians have been granted by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This is the accumulation of consistently increasing month-on-month approvals, with August closing at 10,791. In fact, in the period of July 2019 through July 2021, SAS-B approvals grew a whopping 665% in the two-year window. Even more encouraging is that of the 159,017 applications received, 100% were approved. It is important to note that anyone who has been through the SAS-B application process knows that there can be a lengthy approval period (often between two – 10 days), as the TGA does vet and carefully consider if medicinal cannabis is right for the patient. That is because it generally is, given the 3,575 doctors who have submitted application are highly trained in traditional and plant medicine and go above and beyond to ensure patient care. For a further breakdown on the numbers, please visit the SAS-B Dashboard, which is now publicly available data.
Who Can Prescribe?
Medicinal Cannabis products are generally considered a Schedule 4 (i.e. CBD Isolate) or a Schedule 8 (i.e. THC dominant Whole Flower), meaning they can only be prescribed by a AHPRA licenced doctor. The abovementioned data (graph representation below) is only taking into consideration the prescriptions that went through the SAS-B approval process. However, medical practitioners who meet the TGA criteria are able to apply to become “Authorised Prescribers” (AP), a system that allows doctors to write prescriptions without the requirement of the SAS-B approval. This does not open GPs to recklessly prescribe cannabis without any checks or measures, as all scripts must be submitted to the TGA every six months. What we can surmise from this is that doctors who are across the science and understand benefits of a well-functioning endocannabinoid system will likely become an AP. While this is a net benefit to the doctor (less admin) and patient (less wait time for medication), it does mean there is a significant blind-spot in the data. This is amplified by the addition of patients who are prescribed custom formulation, whereby a doctor will work with a Compounding Pharmacy for a bespoke medicine. Begging the questions, how many Australians are actually benefiting from medicinal cannabis?
The True Statistics?
Put bluntly, there is no real way to get the true number. Even if the TGA made available the number of scripts submitted by APs and compounding pharmacies open their books to provide their number of individual batches, there is still an overwhelmingly large number of Australians who turn to the black-market. From Whole Flower (aka buds) through to tinctures, the black-market is supplying our populous with more than a “recreational high”, as many just don’t know how to seek a prescription for medical cannabis. Price is another obvious justification as to why some are still looking to the black-market. An understandable temptation, but we must stress that while some black-market products may actually provide some benefits, consumers simply cannot be certain what they are taking is bogus (i.e. hemp seed oil rather than CBD oil), dangerous (batched in unhygienic “labs”) or simply lining the pockets of the organised criminals.
As an industry, we have an opportunity, arguably a duty, to help educate Australian citizens, government officials and, at times, the medical community on the vast and substantiated benefits of medicinal cannabis. While it is easy to be frustrated by misinformed beliefs, it simply indicates there is work to be done to educate the masses with clear, digestible and honest information on what the plant is, what it isn’t and where/how patients can obtain safe, legal and high-quality plant medicines.