The Australian Medicinal Cannabis Association (AMCA) launched 12 months ago today. General manager Gail Wiseman says despite increasing patient numbers, there’s still work to be done if the industry is to reach its potential.

Today, like Cannabiz, the Australian Medicinal Cannabis Association (AMCA) is celebrating its first birthday. As the general manager, it has been interesting to observe how things have changed (or not) in the sector during the past 12 months.

AMCA general manager Gail Wiseman

Despite the report from the senate inquiry into barriers to patient access to medicinal cannabis in Australia, published in March 2020 with 20 recommendations, very little has changed to improve patient access.

One of the recommendations was to reduce the cost of legally available medicinal cannabis products. Although costs are declining as more producers come on board, the reluctance of many GPs to prescribe and the charges of many cannabis clinics continue to drive significant numbers of patients to the black market.

While it has been encouraging to see growing interest in, and acceptance of medicinal cannabis among media outlets and increasing numbers of the public (as measured by contacts with AMCA), it has been disappointing to see a continuing low level of interest or support from most politicians and healthcare practitioners, despite medicinal cannabis being legal since 2016.

The rationale for legalisation was largely based on the real needs of terminally ill cancer sufferers, people with multiple sclerosis and children with intractable forms of epilepsy, to treat pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and loss of appetite. The past year has also seen increasing recognition of the therapeutic role of medicinal cannabis for veterans, especially with regard to chronic pain and PTSD resulting from their service.

Another of the senate inquiry recommendations was to see changes to Australia’s regulatory framework. However, more than 15 months later, access to medicinal cannabis remains firmly ensconced in the SAS-B system.

Although the scheme does provide a means of access, and the number of approvals has encouragingly risen by more than 70% over the past 12 months, the current application process is no doubt as much of a deterrent to most clinicians as lack of comfort with how to prescribe medicinal cannabis itself.

Most healthcare practitioners (HCPs) in this country still regard the Special Access Scheme as a means to obtain unregistered drugs for occasional patients in need of life-saving medication, rather than a routine method of access, and still appear to put it in the “too hard” basket.

Many GPs still put the Special Access Scheme in the “too hard” basket

The Society of Cannabis Clinicians Australian Chapter was established by AMCA in November 2020 to increase awareness and education of medicinal cannabis prescribing for HCPs.

Although another aim of the senate inquiry report was to improve the training of HCPs, the chapter continues to attract converts rather than sceptics, which is a shame as healthy debate is something needed in this area.

Until the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners come on board to support the position of medicinal cannabis, especially as a safer option to opioids, benzodiazepines and the polypharmacy of epilepsy, for example, I don’t anticipate change in the attitudes of mainstream GPs any time soon.

Regarding politicians, although a Parliamentary Friends of Medicinal Cannabis group exists, support has mostly come from a few dedicated individuals, such as WA Greens senator Rachel Siewert and Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, who have shown a consistency in their interest to see change and accountability.

Reason Party leader and drug-driving campaigner Fiona Patten

Reason Party leader Fiona Patten and SA Greens MP Tammy Franks are two other politicians who, along with the Drive Change campaign, have been unceasing in their commitment to changing the unfair driving laws in this country that continue to penalise patients legally prescribed medicinal cannabis patients.

It may not seem like it sometimes, but it’s not all doom and gloom by any means. Despite the challenges and snail’s pace of progress, this sector has some of the most dedicated and collaborative individuals and organisations I have come across in my career. People who are truly committed to patient well-being and the development of a robust and healthy new sector that could, in the words of one of our members, become the new wine industry for Australia.

Australia produces arguably the highest quality medicinal cannabis in the world, grown and manufactured by a highly committed industry; the opportunity to export worldwide is now being realised; we have a democratic system that allows communities to demand improved access for their medical needs; and, not least, we have dedicated individuals who continue to give their time and energy to holding the government to account and seeing improved access and affordability for patients.

I look forward to the next 12 months and continuing to work with individuals and organisations in bringing about further change. The main thing is that we all work together, across the breadth of the sector, to effect that change, and not be discouraged. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”