The industry has been urged to drive out ‘cowboys’ by informing authorities of illegal advertising and exposing baseless medical claims, particularly those made by celebrities.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration said it was striving to tackle the problem, but admitted it was struggling to win the battle.
TGA boss John Skerritt said the health regulator has received 400 complaints relating to the advertising and supply of medicinal cannabis by “websites and clinics”.
“This partly reflects that it’s a new industry and partly because there are some cowboys,” he said.
While advertising of medicinal cannabis products by Australian firms is banned, the TGA does not have jurisdiction over offshore firms marketing locally.
Among the major frustrations are endorsements and claims made by celebrities surrounding CBD.
TGA first assistant secretary of regulatory health, Gillian Mitchell, called on the industry to “drown out” celebrity messaging.
Speaking during this week’s PharmOut Medicinal Cannabis Conference, Mitchell said a newly drawn up list of priorities for advertising compliance again included medicinal cannabis.
“It’s something that has become increasingly difficult for us to manage as more users take to social media and, as we saw throughout Covid, there are lots of self-proclaimed experts promoting all kinds of different products,” she said.
“But there are things the industry can do. The first is to report issues to the TGA using the online advertising portal and the second would be to drown out the messaging from celebrities with factual information.
“There are many medicinal cannabis products being illegally sold online without prescriptions and these products can pose great risk to consumers because of contamination or adulteration of the product.
“We are working hard to stamp out the practice, but it’s difficult to locate the responsible person because of the anonymity offered by the Internet.”
Mitchell said it was a “challenge for us all” to counter false information. She called on companies to use their own social channels to spell out the legal position in Australia.
But in a sign of the grey areas that surround advertising, Mitchell warned danger exists even when firms may be trying to act responsibly.
While recommending the industry use the assets of the TGA and ODC, she said: “If you do, it’s important you do so in the original form. If you were to modify our information in any way, or include a logo, that would be viewed as illegal advertising or endorsement.”
Responding directly to messages on social media was also “risky”, she warned, as that may be interpreted as advertising.
“The line can sometimes be grey,” Mitchell admitted.
It is unclear how many of the 400 complaints lodged with the TGA have been upheld, or resolved by its dedicated investigations team.
But Skerritt made it clear that clinics have fallen foul of the laws and are being educated by the regulator.
Most have taken warnings on board, but not all, he said.
“We’ve worked with the clinics to reform the information they provide publicly,” Skerritt said. “We still want people to know clinics exist so people can go if they want medical advice, but [information] must fall short of advertising specific products.
“The good news is many of the clinics have complied, and we are following up with those that haven’t.”