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Australian Cannabis Patients Turning to Prescriptions Over Illicit Market, Study Shows

New research from the University of Sydney’s Lambert Initiative seeks to take a closer look at cannabis consumers’ habits. While most Australians are now using illicit cannabis to treat their ailments, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of medicinal cannabis patients who use it. The study’s findings were recently published in Harm Reduction Journal.

It’s the third Cannabis as a Medicine Survey After two previous iterations of CAMS16, and CAMS18, (CAMS20), These authors point out that even though Australia now has a legal framework for medicinal marijuana, prior surveys showed most people were still using illegal cannabis products. However, regulatory data indicates an increase in prescriptions for medicinal cannabis.

One hundred and sixty-one participants were surveyed anonymously in a cross-sectional survey. The surveys ran from September 2020 through January 2021. The eligibility criteria for participants was that they had used cannabis to treat a medical condition in the previous year or were a resident of Australia.

Final results of the survey showed that 36% of respondents had received legal cannabis prescriptions. This is a significant increase over the 2.5% who indicated prescription use during the 2018 CAMS survey. Prescription cannabis users were typically older and more likely to not be working.

The prescription participants had higher rates of using cannabis for pain management (52% vs. 40%) and were also more likely not to be prescribed to help with sleep problems (6% vs. 12%). For both the 26% and 31% of participants, mental illness was a common reason. Prescribed medicinal cannabis was consumed mainly via oral route (72%), while illicit marijuana was consumed more frequently (41%).

As far as medicinal cannabis access, and despite the fact that medical patients in Australia have drastically increased over the past several years, few participants (10.8%) described the existing model for accessing prescribed medicinal cannabis as “straightforward or easy.”

Participants in the survey cited the high cost of medical cannabis as an obstacle. The average weekly cost was $79, which highlights the importance of reexamining the costs of treating patients. Some people who use illicit cannabis reported difficulty finding doctors willing to prescribe medical cannabis.

The study’s lead researcher, Professor Nicholas Lintzeris from the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney, said this data suggests that Australia has seen a transition from illicit use toward the legal use of medicinal cannabis.

“A number of benefits were identified in moving to prescribed products, particularly where consumers reported safer ways of using medical cannabis. 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, highlighting a health benefit of using prescribed products,” Lintzeris said.

The majority of respondents also stated that they had experienced positive results from using medical marijuana.

Iain McGregor (academic director, Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics) stated that medical cannabis is safer than its illicit counterpart. There are also greater access certainty, better communication, and more safety routes.

“Patients can also be informed of the exact THC/CBD composition, which is an ongoing problem with illicit product,” McGregor said. “There should be further efforts to transition patients from illicit to regulated, quality-controlled, cannabis products.”

Authors of the study concluded similar sentiments and noted the rise in medical cannabis prescriptions in the years since 2016’s introduction of the regulatory framework. They also recognize the many benefits that medicinal cannabis can bring, but authors acknowledge some of the obstacles that could prevent illicit users from getting a prescription.

The authors conclude by suggesting further research on the obstacles respondents identified in accessing doctors who will prescribe medical cannabis in Australia. CAMS is conducted twice a year. If the contrast in this survey with the last one is an indicator of how far the next iteration may go, it is possible that there will be some improvements in access for patients to medicinal cannabis.