BREAKING NEWS: Most Australian patients are still self-medicating with illicit cannabis, although numbers accessing prescription products have risen dramatically, according to new research by the Lambert Initiative.
The third Cannabis as Medicine Survey (CAMS20) questioned 1,600 people using medicinal cannabis between September 2020 and January 2021.
It found 37% of respondents had received a legal prescription for medicinal cannabis – a significant increase on the 2.5% reporting prescription use in CAMS18 – while 62% accessed only illicit products.
Those who only used prescription cannabis tended to be older, female, and less likely to be employed.
In the first study of its kind to examine the differences between prescribed and illicit users in Australia, lead researcher Professor Nicholas Lintzeris, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney, said there were clear health benefits for patients moving to prescribed products.
He added: “People using illicit cannabis were more likely to smoke their cannabis, compared to people using prescribed products who were more likely to use oral products or vaporised cannabis.”
Overall, respondents reported positive outcomes from medicinal cannabis use, with 95% saying their health had improved.
The main reason for using prescribed medicine was chronic pain, consistent with data from the Therapeutics Goods Administration. Those using illicit products were more likely to be treating mental health or sleep conditions, with 98% suggesting their main health condition had improved.
Despite the large increase in patients using prescribed products in the last two years, only 24% of those who had done so agreed that the current model for accessing medicinal cannabis was easy or straightforward.
A barrier identified by most respondents was cost, with an average spend of A$79 per week.
People using illicit products also cited an inability to find medical practitioners who were happy to consider medicinal cannabis, consistent with findings from the 2020 Senate Inquiry into barriers to patient access.
More than a third said they did not know a medical practitioner who would prescribe medicinal cannabis, 25% said their own GP was not keen while 12% were unaware cannabis could be legally prescribed.
In addition, 47% cited the cost of prescribed cannabis as a reason they turned to the illicit market with 18.5% “concerned with confidentiality”.
A further 16% said they “preferred” illicit cannabis over prescribed products.
Elsewhere in the study, 26% of legal users took mainly THC products, 40% a balance while 31% favoured a dominant CBD profile.
Among illicit users, 34% said they were unsure of the cannabinoid content.
The study found that almost two thirds of legal users were prescribed medicinal cannabis by a clinic, 25% by a GP and 10% by a medical specialist.
Lambert Initiative academic director Professor Iain McGregor said the study illustrated the advantages in using prescribed medical cannabis over illicit cannabis.
“These include safer routes of administration, greater certainty of access, and better communication between patients and doctors,” he said.
“Patients can also be informed of the exact THC/CBD composition, which is an ongoing problem with illicit product. There should be further efforts to transition patients from illicit to regulated, quality-controlled, cannabis products.”
CAMS is the largest national survey of medicinal cannabis users conducted every two years. It was undertaken as a partnership between the Discipline of Addiction Medicine and the Lambert Initiative.
Initial findings were presented at Medicinal Cannabis Industry Australia’s ACannabis conference in March by Dr Llew Mills from the University of Sydney.