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The Cost Of Medicinal Cannabis Is Impacting The People Who Say They Need It Most

Black market suppliers of medicinal cannabis told BuzzFeed News the government's legal product could cost up to four times as much as their product.

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Medicinal cannabis activists have multiple issues with the way the government is choosing to roll out the drug in Australia.

They say trials in Australian hospitals don't use THC; the pathways to access are slow and not always clear; and the government has been accused of prioritising industry over the health of patients. These are complicated issues that will take months, maybe longer, to resolve.

Another key issue is cost. Medicinal cannabis is not on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), meaning manufacturers can set their own price.

Paul Mavor, a pharmacist with Health House International, is working with Cannimed – a Canadian company that recently imported the first shipments of cannabis oil into the country – to supply medicinal cannabis to Australians.

Mavor told BuzzFeed News a patient using an average amount of the three available cannabis oils would be paying about $350 per month for supplies.

"The bottle size for each of our three strengths is 60ml," Mavor said. "The average patient will take 0.5ml sublingually [under the tongue] three times a day. Some will use more, some will use less depending on their condition, but this is roughly a month’s supply."

Australians currently sourcing their medicinal cannabis from the black market, and black market suppliers, have both told BuzzFeed News that accessing cannabis through legal means would cost a lot more.

"It's almost four times as much," one black market supplier told BuzzFeed News. "And it's an inferior product lacking in essential cannabinoids."

Referencing the $350 per 60 mls the legal product would cost patients, the black market supplier said the same amount would cost $100 on the black market.

There are also compassionate suppliers – like South Australian Jenny Hallam – to consider. Hallam supplies her product free of charge.

One person struggling to find affordable and legal medicinal cannabis is Michael Oakley, whose son, Ben, suffers from stiff person syndrome and uses medicinal cannabis to treat himself.

Before it was legalised, Oakley would source his cannabis from compassionate suppliers. He told BuzzFeed News doctors had recommended a dosage of 30ml of Sativex, a spray made using cannabis extracts, every three weeks.

"This is not even close to what Ben has been taking," said Michael. "Ben has been taking under 5ml every three weeks, but as doctors have no clue about dosages on cannabis, they are winging it."

There was an attempt to put Sativex on the PBS in 2013, but it was denied.

Michael says the legal medicinal cannabis has not been supplied to Ben yet because, although he qualifies for a prescription, he and his family cannot afford to pay for it.

Many of the seriously ill medicinal cannabis patients have qualified for trials in hospitals around Australia which would give them free access.

However, some have turned their back on the treatments and returned to the black market, saying their child became "increasingly sick" under the trials.

"It's not the fact that they're denying access to cannabis across the board, but [the government] is making out that they're all for it," one compassionate supplier told BuzzFeed News. "Now we're dealing with this synthetic product that costs more and that isn't working."

Steve Peek's daughter, Suli, uses medicinal cannabis he sources from a compassionate supplier to control seizures. He has refused to enter her into trials because they don't use products that contain THC, a component he says is essential to the welfare of his daughter.

When Peek approached his state health body for special consideration, he was told that nobody aged under 25 should be getting access to cannabis products containing THC.

"If I agree and I try CBD and it doesn't work then I also lose my place [with my compassionate supplier],' Peek said. "Someone else who needs it takes my place and then we've got nothing. What we get at the moment is free."

Brad Esposito is a news reporter for BuzzFeed and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Brad Esposito at bradley.esposito@buzzfeed.com.

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