The Medical Cannabis Fiasco Explained


In 1996 my girlfriend’s mother, Yvonne, had cancer, and she kept a biscuit tin full of weed on top of the refrigerator.

When the pain got to be too much, she’d smoke a joint on the back verandah and it would make her feel a lot better. I witnessed this first-hand. The transformation was miraculous, and it changed the way I’d been taught to think about the demon weed.

That was over twenty years ago, and medicinal cannabis was only legalised in late 2016 for the treatment and management of painful, chronic and terminal conditions. Hey, better late than never, right? Sure, but it’s 2017 and no one has a prescription—what’s the holdup?

I called my friend, “Steve” the medical cannabis entrepreneur, to explain what the heck is going on. Steve chose to remain anonymous because he plans to apply for a cultivation license in 12 months. The ODC (The Office of Drug Control) might read this, get miffed, and give him the runaround.

Steve, you’re working on setting up a medicinal cannabis grow situation, is that right?

Well, our goal is to be a primary producer in the cannabinoid-based industry. It’s very pharmaceutically driven in Australia. It’s not so much a medical cannabis, more the pharmaceutical cannabinoids.

And how do you set that up?

First, there’s the grow license, which is a very subdivided thing. There are only a few reasons for cultivation as defined by the ODC: you’re allowed to cultivate for the Special Access scheme, which is basically a scheme where doctors are authorised through the federal government to prescribe medical cannabis in its raw form, like what we’re seeing in the States, but it’s un-smokeable here; you know, edibles, tinctures, stuff like that. Vaporizers are being used in trials at the moment, but none of the products will ever be smokeable in Australia. The second reason for getting a cultivation license is to produce cannabinoids for ARTG (Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods) registered products; so you’d go through a medical trial process; the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) do their ethics assessment to decide whether it’s safe for human consumption in the treatment of specific conditions. So, something like Sativex, which is the first cannabis-derived product to be patented and registered across multiple countries, would go through this process. Another reason to cultivate is to supply medical trials and research. An example of that is the Ozcan Group, who started a research grow over in Perth, and they’re the first to be given the registered license to grow in Australia.

What’s the deal with Australia buying medicinal cannabis products from overseas because we have to sort out our cultivation effort at home? That sounds ridiculous.

Right. So, the federal government, in essence, is buying it from a company over in Canada, who are the first and only company approved for exporting federally and importing federally here. They’re called Tilray. They’ve gone through all the paperwork with our border control, federal police, ODC (Office of Drug Control), and also the UN. And what that means is someone can go to an authorised prescriber–not just any doctor; they have to be an authorised prescriber approved by the federal government, TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) and the ODC–to get a script for medical cannabis. Now, those import/export licenses were actually available to download and apply for as of November 1st, 2016; so the first one has been approved, and the federal government is trying to push that through as quickly as possible because they know products in Australia will take a significant amount of time to be developed and distributed.

And how many people are eligible for theses imported products?

MGC Pharmaceuticals had a look at the potential patient size in Australia and it’s around 200,000 people.

So, close to a quarter of a million people are eligible for the medication?

Potentially, but there’s significant gap in the patient authorisation size.

How?

Well, it’s very interesting. The federal government has been saying, “Hey, this stuff is going to be available in eight weeks,” but guess how many authorised prescribers, doctors, that the federal government has approved?

How many?

23.

That’s all, 23?

And 21 of them are paediatric neurologists.

What?

There’s one trial that has 21 doctors in Victoria looking after kids with epilepsy, prescribing CBD (non-psychoactive compound in cannabis). And under TGA legislation, a doctor can’t market what drugs they’re able to prescribe, which means they can’t market that they’re even approved on the scheme. So that’s only two or three doctors who are approved, but no one is allowed to know who they are.

That’s insane.

Yep. And these are current statistics. This isn’t me spruiking shitty numbers, these are the federal government’s numbers.

So, Australia is purchasing all these cannabis-based medicines from overseas, but they’re virtually inaccessible. How much product are we talking about?

They will have made a minimum evaluated number based on children with epilepsy–that’s the first patient group they target–then potentially MS patients, chronic pain, end-of-life patients, etc. What the government will do is allow oncologists, pain doctors, and end-of-life doctors to eventually sign up to get authorised to prescribe. But it doesn’t matter if the products arrive here in eight weeks because no one can write a script for it.

That’s completely absurd.

Yeah, and the doctors get paid anyway, so why would I go off and do this? It’s a six-week process to get approved to be able to prescribe, but what’s the point? I can work as a GP and still make my 150-200 grand a year, so it’s not like it’s going to line my pockets any more. It has to be an emotional decision for them. And it’s not happening, and the patients are being let down. If you take out the question mark of the business, the business will come eventually, and there are people investing into the space. But the patients between now and the next 12 months, the people who are sick and dying without products, are not going to have the quality of life that they could have. And it’s a super-safe product; I’m sure you’re up to date on how safe it is. No one has ever died from it.

Of course. Does any of this bureaucratic bullshit have anything to do with pharmaceutical companies fearing they’ll be pushed out of the game? I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, cannabis is a wonder drug for all types of conditions, so of course that’s a threat to the gazillion dollar drug companies—and the tax department too, right?

Well, we saw a massive deregulation in the States in 2004, which was basically the States saying, “You know what? This stuff is safe, it’s not dangerous at all, and we need to tax something else to supplement what our current taxes are.” And there was also huge patient pressure, and then California decided to pull the trigger on legalising medical cannabis. North America’s predicting it’ll be a 7 billion dollar a year industry next year. So there was great prosperity as a result of deregulation. But what we’re seeing in Australia is deregulation on one side, but then a hardcore push to snuff it out on the other. There was a lady down in South Australia, Jenny Hallam, who was actually giving 3000 patients medical cannabis oil completely free. So people would grow it, they’d give it to her, and she’d process it into different strengths and types of oil. And then she’d distribute those products to sick people and took no money. She never took a cent.

I read about her. She got busted.

Yeah, the state police kicked down her door and took all her product. They haven’t chosen to charge her, but they’ve taken all the product and said she’s not to distribute this stuff. But she’s just one of a few people who are filling that massive gap. There are a few people distributing to sick people and not taking any money. It’s a total compassionate care model. And now they’re getting hit up for it. What the government is saying is, look, there’s a regulated system you need to go through to do this, it’s a special access scheme and you need to do it that way. But these people don’t have the minimum 300 grand to set it up and meet the pharmaceutical standards needed.

300K? What for?

Well, the extraction machine on its own costs about $270,000.

Yikes.

So in Australia, it looks like we’ve deregulated, but what we’ve actually done is given the government and the police the power to say, “No, you should have gone through the correct channels to do this, but you haven’t, and so we’re going to take all your product away from you.”

And these people who are making the oil and giving it away for free, they have a lot of people relying on them–3000 in the case of Jenny Hallam.

Exactly.

It’s so weird.

It is.

And the most obvious thing to point out is that we’re talking about a plant that has never killed anyone and has been growing naturally for thousands of years–I’m assuming thousands of recorded years (The earliest written reference to cannabis dates back to 2727 B.C., from the Chinese emperor Shennong)–but look where we are now. It’s madness. People are suffering because they don’t have access to a plant.

Yes. Cannabis can treat 200 conditions, so it’s a concern for the patients, and it’s a concern that our government can’t pull together the legal requirements to have it so that in a couple of months we can have proper product to people, even if it’s just a peripheral thing just to service the first 12 to 24 months. But that’s the way politics works.

 

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