The RACGP is calling for a national approach to the prescribing of medicinal cannabis, which GPs say is near impossible for patients to obtain nearly two years after it was legalised.
RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel appealed for a national solution on Twitter and in a media interview in his home state of Tasmania.
“It’s time for all health ministers to commit to a nationally consistent regulatory framework that informs access and prescribing of medicinal cannabis. Patients & practitioners deserve transparency. Anything else is politics,” Dr Seidel said on Twitter at the weekend.
Access to medicinal cannabis remains at the mercy of vague and confusing state-based regulations, to the frustration of GPs who attempt to prescribe.
Controversy over the issue has flared anew after Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed that his government hoped to create a world-leading export industry from medicinal cannabis products.
“We would like to be potentially the world’s number one medical cannabis supplier,” the minister said.
“Our goal is to ensure Australian producers have every opportunity to be the number one producers of the highest grade of medicinal cannabis.”
Dr Seidel said the focus on exports sent an odd message.
“If I were a patient I would wonder, does the government want me to move countries to access the product?” he told the Hobart Mercury.
“Is this medical cannabis or political cannabis?” he added.
The newspaper reported that only two patients in Tasmania had been approved to receive medicinal cannabis despite an “explosion” in demand, leading many patients to resort to illegal supplies.
Sydney GP Dr Brad McKay said he hoped the RACGP would press for a resolution.
“It is a shemozzle,” Dr McKay said.
He said he had spent months jumping through hoops with NSW Health seeking approval for a medicinal cannabis product for a patient who was about to undergo chemotherapy. The patient had successfully used the agent – which he had obtained illegally – to control nausea during an earlier bout of chemo treatment.
“They strung me along for two to three months, only to tell me finally that (the product) was not even available,” Dr McKay said. Eventually, but not until the last week of the chemo treatment, the patient secured the product through a palliative care specialist.
Cost is another formidable barrier for Australian patients. Advocates say legal cannabis products can cost patients tens of thousands of dollars a year more than illegal supplies.
Mr Hunt suggested medicinal cannabis exports would promote domestic supply by bringing down prices.
However, Australia might have missed the opportunity for earning big export dollars.
Brendan Kennedy, president of Canadian supplier Tilray, predicted profits would shrink as competition increased.
“I think it will be around a $100 billion opportunity over the next five to 10 years,” he told the ABC.
“If you look at the number of countries that allow medical cannabis, it’s about 30 today and I would expect that to grow to about 40 by the end of this year.”
Countries on the equator, such as Colombia and Congo, had the geographic advantage for export supply.
“While the price per kilogram of this product today is very high at the moment, at some point it will start to look like other agricultural products,” he said.
The RACGP’s position statement on medicinal cannabis, issued in on October 2016, said evidence for medicinal cannabis products remained sketchy but held out hope for a national approach to supply.
“A national regulatory framework for prescribing medicinal cannabis products is currently being developed,” it said.
“Whilst there will be state variation, as every state differs in its legislature on medicines, the intention is to produce a cohesive, national framework that supports and compliments state legislation.”