Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen identifies the five issues holding the Australian cannabis industry back – and over-the-counter CBD isn’t one of them.

It has been a hell of a year … and it’s only October. But if you can, I invite you to cast your mind back to the heady days of February 2020. There was choking smoke in the air, COVID was but a distant hypothetical threat, and the Senate inquiry regarding barriers to patient access to medicinal cannabis was having public hearings in Melbourne.

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Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen: time for the industry to focus on the big issues.

I remember sitting there in a room full of politicians, activists, bureaucrats and executives, listening to stories of suffering and hardship experienced by sick and dying Australians just trying to find relief. It felt like an important moment. Here were a whole bunch of powerful people, in the same room as Australia’s most knowledgeable cannabis people, discussing the big issues.

And there are a lot of big issues.

But you know one issue that wasn’t raised by a majority of patients, advocates, scientists, doctors or executives in the lead-up to the inquiry? Making low-dose CBD available behind-the-counter at pharmacies. In fact, if you’d surveyed the people in that room just a couple of months earlier, pharmacist-only access to low-dose CBD wouldn’t even have registered as a concern.

It was the Department of Health, in their submission to the inquiry just a couple of months prior, that first raised the topic at such a high level. During the hearings, they indicated that such a move was on the cards and, subject to an ongoing review of the safety literature, would be acted on with priority by the Department. This would allegedly increase access, reduce costs etc.

But let’s get real here.

“The promise of a shiny new regulatory change, and the chance of meaningful revenues, captured the attention of the whole sector. And since February it seems we have been incapable of discussing anything else.”

People with epileptic children weren’t asking for this. Neither were cancer patients, doctors, or drug law reform advocates. Access to these sorts of products is unlikely to meaningfully improve anyone’s lives, at least according to all currently available clinical evidence, including the TGA’s own literature review. That’s assuming this reform actually ends up translating into products being accessible, which is far from a sure thing.

But the promise of a shiny new regulatory change, and the chance of meaningful revenues, captured the attention of the whole sector. And since February it seems we have been incapable of discussing anything else.

There are much more important issues that deserve our attention and energy. So, in case you’ve forgotten, here are five major issues with medical cannabis in Australia that are more important than low-dose, over-the-counter CBD.

1. It’s still too expensive

Your average medical cannabis patient is still paying around A$400 per month for their medication, not including the private fees charged by cannabis clinics which can add several hundred dollars per year on top.

That’s totally unaffordable for your average Australian.

Product prices are coming down, but average patient consumption is going up, so average expenditure remains the same and indicates that people are not taking as much medication as they need, but only as much as they can afford.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) can’t help because none of these products have yet been proven to be better and cheaper than currently available medicines. Some private insurance companies are starting to cover the costs of consultations and medication, but they haven’t gone so far as to broadly publicise that.

Paediatric epilepsy patients are expected to fork out $20-60,000 per year for medication, depending on the dose. The idea of most people affording that kind of expense is ludicrous. Some states and hospitals have funded compassionate access for limited numbers of patients, but many people are still missing out.

These compassionate access programs should be expanded, but the key to making these products affordable long term is large-scale local cultivation and manufacture, and a thriving local industry. This has been prevented by badly designed and executed legislation and regulation, which I’ll get to soon.

2. Sick people are still being criminalised

If you’re living with cancer or some other serious condition, you’re entitled to some peace and dignity. If you don’t have thousands of dollars to pay for private treatments, and your friend wants to make you some edibles or roll you some joints to take the edge off, neither you nor your friend should face criminal charges.

That, unfortunately, is still a controversial position to take in Australia.

“We should decriminalise personal cultivation (within reasonable limits), consumption (in private), and supply (as a gift, not a sale) of cannabis. That would be a good start.”

Rhys Cohen

Editor-at-Large