Gail Wiseman, general manager of the newly formed Australian Medicinal Cannabis Association (AMCA), reveals the association’s plans to shape the cannabis industry for the better.
While the story of medicinal cannabis goes back centuries, in Australia it has only been in recent times that the movement to provide legal access has taken shape.
The legalisation of medicinal cannabis in November 2016 was a major achievement for all who had been involved in campaigning for this life-changing treatment to be available to patients in need.
For decades, the reputation of cannabis as a misused and dangerous narcotic has prevented its unique properties and benefits from helping patients with severe epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, chronic non-cancer pain and palliative care. In truth, medicinal cannabis is safer than many alternative treatments, such as the opioids which have gained an increasingly alarming reputation through misuse and addiction.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose from marijuana (cannabis) is unlikely. In contrast, the CDC notes that two out of three drug overdose deaths in 2018 involved an opioid. Overdose deaths involving opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and synthetic opioids (like fentanyl) have increased almost six times since 1999. Overdoses involving opioids killed nearly 47,000 people in 2018, and 32 per cent of those deaths involved prescription opioids.
The 2016 legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia then led to the next challenge – continuing to build the evidence base that medicinal cannabis actually works.
However, as noted on the TGA website: “There have only been a limited number of well-designed clinical studies on medicinal cannabis and so it is hard for some doctors to find quality evidence to support decisions to prescribe medicinal cannabis.” In Australia, medicinal cannabis is therefore still only prescribed by a minority of clinicians and the process to do so is time consuming.
Then there are the strict conditions placed on cultivators, manufacturers and distributors resulting in a legal industry that produces medicinal cannabis that is frequently more expensive than illegally grown and supplied cannabis.
Although progress has been made with the Senate Inquiry held in early 2020, steps being taken to down-schedule CBD (cannabidiol, the non-hallucinogenic component of cannabis) and the recent support for a bill to make it easier for Australian companies to export medicinal cannabis, production of – and access to – medicinal cannabis in this country is still challenging and expensive.
Shaping the industry to leave no-one behind
The medicinal cannabis field is one involving many different participants, all of whom need a voice.
AMCA is a registered not-for-profit association formed to serve the interests of the broad variety of organisations and individuals across the Australian medicinal cannabis industry. It is focused on supporting a healthy and robust industry, which will ultimately benefit Australian patients. Its vision is to see Australia leading the world in quality, affordable and accessible medicinal cannabis.
To achieve that vision, AMCA believes it is essential to have a broad mix of members with a wide set of skills, in order to meet the needs of each facet of the complex medicinal cannabis industry, especially in these early days of industry development. It will also assist in networking to bridge educational gaps and create a better supported workforce.
While AMCA realises the need for this industry to be more patient-centric, that requires that no one area is left behind. AMCA especially sees the need to engage with the public and its health workforce. With its broad membership, AMCA is ideally positioned to represent and advocate for the interests and concerns of patients, healthcare professionals, not-for-profit organisations, researchers, cultivators, manufacturers, exporters and affiliated organisations serving the Australian medicinal cannabis industry. No other association represents such a broad cross-section of stakeholders.
Pioneers, ambassadors and stakeholders striving for a common good
AMCA may be regarded as the ‘new kid on the block’ but its board includes many of the pioneers of the Australian medicinal cannabis space. Between them, these pioneers have deeper and broader expertise than almost anyone in the sector.
Several were previously members of an alliance formed in 2018, through which they worked tirelessly in an informal and often opportunistic way to make small but important in-roads into what has been a complicated and inefficient regulatory space. They have often had to tackle challenges that others have shied away from, but they have nevertheless stepped up to do so when patients and industry have suffered.
Activities in which these pioneers have been involved include initiating the Federal Senate Inquiry in 2014 which led to the passage of the amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act which legalised medicinal cannabis in 2016; the streamlining of access approvals to remove state and territory involvement in such approvals; the initiation of the Senate Inquiry into Barriers to Patient Access; the down-scheduling of cannabidiol; and the passing of the Export Control Legislation Amendment (Certification of Narcotic Exports) Bill 2020.
AMCA will now provide the formal framework for an association which will assist committed individuals and organisations steer the industry in a positive direction. For this reason, it will engage directly wherever possible with patient advocacy groups, individual health professionals and their representative bodies, as well as the wider industry organisations.
As well as its highly experienced board, AMCA is privileged to have the support of passionate and dedicated ambassadors who will promote the organisation’s vision and mission. Journalist and filmmaker Helen Kapalos, lawyer and author David Heilpern and former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer have all enthusiastically agreed to be ambassadors for AMCA and to highlight prioritised issues that require intervention or support.
AMCA appreciates that this will be a “long game” and that it is important to be at the table to help shape the industry into one that is beneficial, sustainable, profitable, accessible and affordable to all, and something that all of its members will be proud of. It is well positioned to not only have a seat at the table, but to make a unique and significant contribution to ensure that Australia’s medicinal cannabis system is both world class and patient focused.