State and Federal governments in Australia are paving the way for the cultivation, manufacture and prescription of medicinal cannabis to treat and relieve symptoms of chronic and painful illnesses, reports Isabelle Walker

In 2014 Daniel Haslam, a 24-year-old terminally ill cancer sufferer, was given a suggestion by a friend: he should try medicinal cannabis to relieve his pain and increase the appetite he had lost during chemotherapy. 

The drug worked so well that Daniel felt compelled to write to the NSW Government and ask they decriminalise the act of using cannabis for medicinal purposes, on a compassionate basis. Thus began the story of medicinal cannabis in Australia – a triumph for health campaigners and policy. 

Medicinal cannabis has been available for people with proven illnesses across several jurisdictions globally for some time. Famously, California legalised medicinal cannabis in the 1990s, with Canada, Israel and parts of Europe following not long after. 

It has taken longer to reach Australia, however as it did many families came out of the woodwork to declare medicinal cannabis had been their lifelines for some time. 

Apart from its known properties for exceptionally effective pain relief, medicinal cannabis also contains cannabinoids, or CBD, which can have extraordinary effects on the brain. For example, drug-resistant epilepsy patients had successful results from the use of medicinal cannabis. Young children with Dravet Syndrome (a particularly nasty form of epilepsy) experiencing up to 10 seizures a day saw their fits (and associated brain damage) dramatically reduce in number. 

And now the governments of Australia have got on board. In December 2015 the Federal Parliament passed a law to allow for the legal cultivation and manufacture of cannabis for medicinal purposes, with the private licenses to cultivate to be approved after October 2016. 

Victoria and Queensland governments have drafted legislation outlining who will be able to prescribe and access the drug. The NSW Government has released guidelines for police discretion in dealing with chronically ill patients accessing the drug. In the last year the legislation and/or regulation– at Federal and State levels – has moved extremely quickly. 

Wells Haslem client, MGC Pharmaceuticals, is at the forefront of medicinal cannabis production. It specialises in researching and producing strains of cannabis that have ratios of CBD optimised to treat certain ailments. Originating in the innovation powerhouse, Israel, MGC produces products with minimal THC (the psychoactive element of cannabis) so the patient can receive all the benefits with a negligible ‘high’. 

These products will change the lives of chronically ill patients, especially children, who desperately need the healing and pain-relieving effects of medicinal cannabis. 

Dr Ross Walker, a consultant cardiologist and non-executive director of MGC Pharmaceuticals, believes medicinal cannabis is the ‘next big thing’. He says: 

“The research performed throughout the world is describing benefits for the following conditions:

  • Epilepsy, especially rarer forms of epilepsy such as Dravet Syndrome, which can often see young children fitting up to 10 times a day. A recent study of 99 per cent pure cannabidiol for refractory epileptic patients who have trialled and failed standard anticonvulsants showed a 54 per cent reduction in seizures in 137 patients;
  • A variety of studies with different types of cancer showed a reduction in cancer pain, reduction in nausea associated with chemotherapy and some even suggesting reduction in cancer spread;
  • Many common neurologic disorders have some preliminary work with medical cannabis such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Motor Neurone disease and the best studied is the spasticity associated with Multiple Sclerosis;
  • Osteoporosis and some auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and psoriasis;
  • Psychosis, depression and anxiety; and
  • Chronic brain injury including alcohol-induced injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy from recurrent head injuries.

Probably the most striking area is in the treatment of chronic pain syndromes. 

Seventy per cent of Australians suffer some chronic pain. Prescription opioids for chronic pain are now leading to more deaths from accidental and intentional overdose than heroin.
Another commonly used treatment for chronic pain is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which although very effective for a variety of musculoskeletal disorders can lead to significant upper gastro-intestinal problems, high blood pressure and kidney damage.”

The government departments and ministers responsible for the fast-tracked regulation of medicinal cannabis have been encouragingly responsive in the fight to give access to the most in-need patients. 

In terms of regulation, Australia still has some way to go. There is certainly still some red tape to overcome before companies can grasp the full potential of this health industry. However, Australians should feel assured their governments are working with the experts to make sure this product becomes available to those seriously in need.