Legalising medicinal cannabis in Australia is pointless if doctors don't know how and when to prescribe it.
While Australian GPs are now able to prescribe medicinal cannabis, most jurisdictions still haven't created frameworks to distribute it to patients. States are left to decide who qualifies to use and dispense the product.
"Doctors haven't had any training," Sydney GP Brad McKay told BuzzFeed News. "Generally, across the board, doctors really aren't comfortable prescribing because as a general rule, we don't know if it will hurt anybody."
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) does not provide doctors with advice relating specifically to medicinal cannabis, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: "Doctors would have to understand the relevant regulations in their state, and also that they're across the level of evidence for the benefit of using the drug versus the potential impact it may have."
To prescribe cannabis doctors must register through both their state health body and the federal Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). A spokesperson for the TGA told BuzzFeed News only 78 doctors had applied to prescribe medicinal cannabis products since 2006. There are about 90,000 doctors in Australia.
"We've been told that we can apply for the medication, but we haven't really been told how to apply or how long it's going to take," McKay said.
The TGA says approval times for applications are not long – often a matter of days – but doctors and medicinal cannabis activists dispute these claims.
Lanai Carter, whose son Lindsay was the first in Australia to receive medicinal cannabis, knows all too well about the complicated process.
Carter spent two years trying to receive certified medical cannabis after telling police and the government she wouldn't be dissuaded by the drug's legal status, especially after Lindsay had been recommended the treatment while in the US where it had worked effectively for him.
"Being the first one going through it, there were all these little things that had to be thought about," she told BuzzFeed News. "But I wasn't going to not give my son this medication, you know? There was no way."
Carter had to wait months as her application for medical cannabis went to the TGA and the Queensland state government. Then her pharmacist had to apply to the federal Office of Drug Control to be able to give Carter's son the medication. FInally, Carter had to receive approval to import a vaporiser from Germany so that Lindsay could use the medicine. She's now campaigning to see the regulations surrounding medical cannabis clarified, making it easier for other patients to receive medicine.
South Australian medicinal cannabis campaigner Jenny Hallam, who supplies cannabis products to around 100 patients free of charge, told BuzzFeed News she was forced to create the oil herself after her doctor told her he had "no idea" how to prescribe her with medical cannabis.
"None of the doctors [my doctor] worked with knew anything," she said. "The TGA and AMA say doctors are ready to prescribe... that is misinformation."
Senior clinical lecturer in medicine at the Australian National University, David Caldicott, has written a course to educate Australians on medicinal cannabis. He said Australia's introduction of medicinal cannabis has been strange "from the get-go".
"It has not been nearly as straightforward as it could have been, from a medical perspective," he said. "There's a bunch of doctors who would be interested in prescribing medical cannabis, I get maybe a hundred emails a week, but we are a very conservative profession.
"There is no education about the endocannabinoid system in medical school, and if there is it is very superficial, and this is the basics of how cannabis pharmacology works. Most GPs and doctors have been told that cannabis is terribly naughty and this is part of the problem."
On Saturday, prominent medicinal cannabis campaigners Lucy Haslam and Barry Lambert, together with Epilepsy Action Australia, asked prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for an amnesty on compassionate suppliers. Turnbull rejected similar requests last Wednesday saying it would be irresponsible.
Brad Esposito is a news reporter for BuzzFeed and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Brad Esposito at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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