Health Minister Greg Hunt has said that medicinal cannabis shouldn’t be seen in a “mythical, mystical” context, at the launch of a national advocacy body
Mr Hunt launched the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Australia industry body, comprised of Australia’s medicinal cannabis industry licensees, last week with support from Labor and the Greens, at an event where Greens leader Richard Di Natale outlined some of the barriers to access to the medicine.
The legislation allowing medicinal cannabis access was in line with the Coalition Government’s push to make medicines, devices and procedures available to patients, Mr Hunt said.
“So I view it in that context and I think it is probably wrong to view it in terms of a special mythical, mystical context,” he told attendees.
“This is a medicine that can assist patients and should be treated as a medicine to assist patients and I think that is a really important thing.
“From the patients’ side of course, we have made it available and one of things we had to do was work on the dual process in between the Commonwealth and State. In the middle of last year, we struck an agreement with NSW to have a 48-hour single one stop shop turnaround and that has made a profound difference.”
Mr Hunt said that this meant a rise in script numbers, from 37 scripts a month a year ago, to more than 650 scripts in the most recent month.
“2,600 patients have been served but it is actually growing at an expediential rate when you chart it,” he said.
However it is important that prescribers feel comfortable writing scripts for medicinal cannabis, and that there was a reasonable process for ensuring that there were authorised prescribers, Mr Hunt said.
Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens, also spoke at the event and said that attitudes towards cannabis have changed significantly, from a time when doctors in training were told to “stay away from it” and “it is bad for you”.
“That was about the long and short of our understanding of cannabis,” he said.
“We didn’t even know there was such a thing as the endo cannabinoid system. We weren’t trained in it, we didn’t understand it, we had no knowledge as to what impact it had across a whole range of physiological functions.
“We are now learning a lot more.”
Many prescribers have come across the illicit use of cannabis to treat symptoms of refractory epilepsy in children; neuromuscular conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinsons’ disease; and chronic pain, he said.
“If you are in General Practice you will have come across those people and that sort of sparked some intellectual curiosity,” said Senator Di Natale.
He said an independent regulator was important because “we understood that cannabis is very different from other pharmaceutical products”.
“It is very hard to patent a natural product, a plant… it is very hard to compete with something that is grown illicitly that people can grow in their backyard we know that there are issues around quality control, and different strains for different conditions.”
Despite intervention from the Government, there is still a “big problem” around access, he said.
“We have a big problem when if you are a GP, I can write a script for people for a whole range of drugs that if taken in the wrong way will kill them, we can write scripts for drugs that have horrendous side effects… yet as a GP I still can’t write a script for a cannabis product for many of the indications that we know as of proven benefit.
“If someone comes to visit and if the option is between a range of drugs which are of modest effectiveness and we have got the opportunity to try medicinal cannabis which is a drug which there is no known overdose, very limited range of side effects.
“If we can’t do that then what we are doing is not working properly. So we are encouraged by the fact that more people are getting access to it but it is still falling a long way short.”
Australia needs to consider whether the current model is the correct one, or whether an independent regulator needs to be set up which could streamline prescribing, Senator Di Natale said.
“My perspective as a health is that somebody needs access to medical care and we have got an effective drug that can ease their paid and suffering, we should be able to prescribe it to them on the spot.”
The newly launched Medicinal Cannabis Industry Australia aims to be a strong voice for the sector, and underline its commitment to producing the highest quality medicinal cannabis products for patients.
“MCIA members are committed to ensuring medicinal cannabis products meet the highest standards and that patients in Australia and internationally benefit from research and product development,” said MCIA Chairman Peter Crock, CEO of Cann Group Limited.
“As medical research increases, and more countries regulate for the use of medicinal cannabis, we can see the importance of what is effectively a new class of compound in medicine.”