Medical cannabis is now available in Australia, but it’s still not easily available for those with chronic pain.
In 2016 Australia changed its laws regarding marijuana, allowing for the first time the prescription of cannabis for medical reasons. Australian doctors now have online access to he documents and procedures they need to be able to establish whether it is appropriate to prescribe the drug for their patients. In some circumstances, they can also order marijuana for deserving patients so they can pick it up with a prescription from a designated pharmacist.
Unfortunately, despite a clear and well-articulated demand from the public for legal medical cannabis, not nearly enough people able to take advantage of the drug. It’s disheartening news, particularly for those suffering chronic pain. It’s also disheartening against the background of the rising number of overdoses associated with the use of opioid-alternative painkillers.
Public opinion favors medical cannabis
There is certainly demand for cannabis to manage chronic pain in Australia. Public sentiment is massively in favor marijuana access for those who need cannabis for pain management purposes. A staggering 92% of ordinary Australians believe that cannabis should be legal for medical uses, believe that the government should change relevant laws, and want doctors to be in a position to prescribe it when (in their medical opinion) it is a safe and reasonable treatment.
A similarly large proportion of the pain sufferers themselves support improved availability of medical marijuana. The Australian Pain Management Association (APMA) recently conducted a survey of 600 chronic pain sufferers. Respondents to the survey regularly deal with a range of pain-related medical issues including back pain, nerve pain, and arthritis pain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 98% of those sufferers–an even larger majority than the general population–believe that cannabis (again, under the auspices of medical supervision and with a prescription) should be available to assist them in easing the pain they have to manage.
Australia is experiencing the equivalent of America’s “Opioid Epidemic”
This is a good time for Australia to discuss the drugs that are used to manage pain, and to consider alternatives to those which are currently employed to help the afflicted. Opioid painkillers, apparently the default prescription for Australian doctors in almost all cases of chronic pain, are starting to become as commonplace here as they have been for some time now in the US. Some reports suggest that opioid medications (in all their forms: patches, pills, and liquids) are easier to come by on the street than heroin is. The result is that opioids, delivered in a variety of manners, are used both by legitimate pain sufferers as well as larger numbers of people seeking a high and/or pain relief.
Opioids are prescribed at less than half the rate (per 100,000 citizens) in Australia as in the US. However, that rate is growing quickly and Australia today risks tumbling towards the same levels of opioid prescriptions seen in North America. We could then, potentially, start to suffer the same rate of deaths from overdose.
These are worrying trends. In the US, nearly 150 people per day, or 60,000 people per year, die from an overdose associated with the use (either prescribed or not) of an opioid medication. Such is the size of the problem that President Donald Trump has spoken publicly on the matter, elevating the subject to the national stage. Importantly, in US states which have legalized cannabis, the number of opioid deaths has fallen dramatically. It appears that the availability of medical marijuana as an alternative pain medication offers a substitute for those ready and willing to consider one.
Medical marijuana does not work for all people suffering chronic pain, or for all types of pain. However, for a significant portion, marijuana improves quality of life without the negatives of opioid treatment. A variety of sources agree it impossible to die from an overdose of cannabis.
Despite legalization, treatment is still difficult to access
Unfortunately, cannabis is not commonly prescribed, even now. As part of a suite of measures which were suggested to overcome the difficulties that Australian doctors were having in obtaining medical cannabis for their patients, in early 2018, less than 2 years after medical cannabis was legalized, the process to obtain it was further streamlined. The government now claims that cannabis can be obtained within 48 hours of the request, anywhere in Australia.
Australia is a country of approximately 25 million people – equivalent, roughly, to the population of Texas. Unfortunately, nearly 28 months after the legislation was changed to allow medical sales in Australia, only a total of 153 of those 25 million people had been prescribed cannabis and only 30 doctors nationwide (most of those in New South Wales – NSW) were authorized to prescribe it. A further 100,000 patients buy and use the drug illegally, irrespective of current laws, risking prosecution, differing doses, and impurities in these unregulated drugs. Many of these users do so in an effort to reduce the number of opioids they are taking or to mitigate some of the pain they live with.
Bringing it all together
Despite the documented demand for cannabis to ease the suffering of those afflicted with chronic pain, in practical terms it is still extremely hard to obtain legally in Australia. While the law has been changed and subsequently streamlined, for most patients obtaining cannabis is still only something that can be done on the black market.
The shame of the circumstance is that cannabis is so clearly helpful in ameliorating the suffering of those living with chronic pain, and is beneficial in reducing the number of opioid deaths associated with other alternatives.
The statistics available on both sides of the discussion (opioid overdoses, cannabis prescriptions) would seem to suggest that Australia should not just prescribe more medical cannabis but that legalization of recreational cannabis might well be worthwhile from a social and health point of view. Given current trends, it appears there may still be a small window of time to avoid at least some of the problems the US has experienced with opioid use and abuse. We can only hope the Australian government takes it.
About the Author:
Neil Aitken is CEO of Cannabis Express, a website dedicated to providing the facts and information Australians need to decide how to vote on the subject of whether Australia should legalize recreational cannabis for personal use.
Article by Ralf Llanasas.