Chronically ill Australians desperately trying to access medicinal cannabis could soon be given a helping hand.
Melbourne-based medicinal cannabis company Montu has created a nationwide network of doctors who support the use of controversial cannabidiol (CBD) as a treatment and can help more than half a million patients access the drug for a range of medical conditions, regardless of their location.
It will come as a welcome relief for thousands of Australians including Melbourne mother Annee Angell, whose daughter Lindsey has epilepsy.
Ms Angell said it had been an ongoing battle to find the right treatment for her 40-year-old, blind and non-verbal daughter, who would feel the debilitating effects of seizures for days after an episode.
Speaking to NCA NewsWire, Ms Angell said she discovered CBD four years ago, but she was forced to seek out a “backdoor supplier” in a bid to treat her daughter’s lifelong and “unpredictable” condition because the product was illegal.
“I couldn’t consult my GP because I feared I would get in trouble,” she said.
MAKING ACCESS EASIER
Medicinal cannabis was legalised in Victoria (the first state to do so) in 2016, but even Lindsey’s neurologist refused to prescribe it.
“I asked for a prescription but he flat out refused because he feared he would become ‘the guy’ and be inundated with CBD prescription requests,” Ms Angell said.
The 75-year-old managed to get her hands on a CBD paste through the backdoor supplier and tried some herself to ensure she didn’t experience any side effects before giving it to Lindsey.
She went from having four seizures every week to just one on average.
Ms Angell said eventually a GP provided Lindsey with a prescription but only a small dose of 4mg a day, but she required at least 40mg to reduce her seizures.
“I felt like he was too nervous to give her a higher dose because he didn’t really understand CBD,” she said.
“Doctors and pharmacists are scared of it. The biggest problem is the stereotype that it gets you high.
“This is not true – I would never put Lindsey in that condition.”
Only 5 per cent of GPs are prescribing cannabis medication despite 84 per cent of Australians supporting medicinal legalisation, according to Montu.
Melbourne man Joseph Stringer, 37, is one of the many Australians pushing for greater accessibility.
Mr Stringer is a recovering cancer patient and first heard about CBD on a TV news segment but was “too afraid” to ask his doctor for help.
“My problems changed after chemotherapy. My white blood cells now give me trouble, which has led to pain in my legs and feet. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve lost mobility in my feet,” he said.
After years of having to pump his body with strong painkillers, generally containing opioid, which is notoriously addictive, Mr Stringer was approached to take part in a clinical study, examining the effect of CBD on chronic pain.
“I vividly remember sitting down on the couch after my first dose and realising I was no longer in pain. I had mobility in my foot which I couldn’t believe and neither could my doctors,” he said.
MEDICAL BODY SCEPTICAL BUT GP OFFERS PRAISE
Dr Joel Wren, who practises from the AHA Seaford Day and Night Clinic in South Australia, has been prescribing medicinal cannabis to patients for a little over a year.
His said Lindsey and Mr Stringer’s struggle to gain access to medicinal cannabis was not uncommon.
“It’s absolutely awful people have to rely on these black market sources,” Dr Wren told NCA NewsWire.
“The overall understanding of what medicinal cannabis is is still very limited in the wider community where a lot of patients are getting the wrong idea.”
Dr Wren has faith the medicine will become more readily available within the next few years but fears the stigma attached to CBD could stand in its way.
“The stigma has contaminated discussion from day one,” he said.
“Until the late 20th century, cannabis was only seen in the dependency section of medical textbooks.
“There was a very poor understanding of the inherent value of it as a treatment. It’s still very new for a lot of doctors.”
CBD is a non-intoxicating component of the hemp plant. It’s the second most prevalent of the active ingredients in cannabis (marijuana) and is currently listed as a Schedule 4 “prescription-only medicine”.
Patients who want to use CBD products have to find a doctor who is familiar with the process of applying through the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) special access scheme to legally prescribe it to them.
But first, a referral needs to be put forward by a doctor on a patient’s behalf and it must show they have a medical reason for accessing CBD.
An Australian Medical Association (AMA) spokesperson told NCA NewsWire it supported clinical trials and recognised the drug’s therapeutic benefits but said it had its limits.
“There is evidence that it may assist in some specialised neurological conditions, including paediatric epilepsy, in multiple sclerosis, and the body wasting that goes along with HIV and chemotherapy, but it is not the panacea for all and, in particular, it has a very limited role in treating pain,” the organisation said.
“It is likely that medicinal cannabis will have a significant but very small role to play in treating difficult cases.”
The organisation claims only a small portion of patients would be suitable for medicinal cannabis treatment but recognises there are several roadblocks for doctors who want to prescribe the medication that need to change.
“The time needed for training and accreditation, and the lack of clear, current prescribing guidelines from jurisdiction to jurisdiction are deterrents to becoming an authorised prescriber,” the AMA said.
“The process for approving medicinal cannabis remains unclear.”
Earlier this month, the TGA flagged making the medication available over the counter, without the need for a prescription, as early as next year.
But there’s a catch – the restricted maximum dose would be just 60mg.
The TGA is taking public comment about amending the Poisons Standard until October 13.
A final decision will be made in November.