From 2018 to 2021, the number of Australians using prescribed medicinal marijuana exploded. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved over 120,000 prescriptions in 2021, compared to just 2,500 in 2018.
But many people using cannabis to treat a medical condition still rely on illicit sources. According to the Cannabis as Medicine Survey (CAMS) in 2020/21, only 37 per cent of those choosing to use medical cannabis had a prescription.
So Why Are Australians Still Buying Black Market Cannabis?
If more than 60 per cent of medical cannabis users still rely on illicit sources, then there’s still work to be done. The CAMS has tracked the growth of medical cannabis use in Australia since 2016. The trend shows how patients have embraced medical cannabis prescriptions. Many patients prefer prescriptions because they’re safer and patients know precisely what they’re getting.
But CAMS also tracks why people haven’t made the switch yet, including their reasons for choosing black market sources over legal ones. From these details, we can better understand the barriers patients experience in accessing medical cannabis — and start to address them.
Reason: You Don't Know Any Prescribing Doctors
One of the most significant barriers to accessing medical cannabis is simply not knowing any doctors who can prescribe it. There are 1,700 Authorised Prescribers (APs) in Australia, but huge disparities exist across the country. For example, there are over 500 APs in Queensland but only 13 in Tasmania.
Other doctors and nurse practitioners can also apply for medical cannabis prescriptions through the TGAs Special Access Scheme (SAS). Still, many choose not to, as they don’t have experience or expertise in prescribing medical cannabis.
Reason: Your Doctor is Unwilling to Prescribe
Other patients find that some doctors are unwilling to prescribe medical cannabis for their specific condition or universally. Some doctors may be hesitant to prescribe, especially if they don’t have previous experience with medical cannabis.
However, plenty of doctors with the knowledge and expertise can prescribe medical cannabis for you. You don’t have to go through your GP to get a prescription.
Reason: You Have Confidentiality Concerns
Eighteen per cent of patients in the CAMS said confidentiality concerns stopped them from accessing prescribed medicinal marijuana. The medical cannabis landscape has changed so fast that it’s not surprising that some patients are worried about keeping their prescriptions private.
But there’s no need to worry. Just like all medical appointments in Australia, medical cannabis consultations and prescriptions are confidential. And that applies to telehealth appointments, too; medical cannabis clinics are bound by the exact confidentiality requirements as all medical providers.
Doctors pride themselves on providing empathetic and non-judgemental care, so you’re safe to share all the information you need to get the most effective solution for your circumstance.
Reason: You Find Legal Medical Cannabis Too Expensive
The final reason patients avoid medical cannabis prescriptions is the price. Unfortunately, medical cannabis can sometimes be more expensive than illicit cannabis in Australia – but it's increasingly uncommon. At the same time, medical cannabis products are higher quality, safer, and more reliable than other sources.
But we understand that money is tight for many people, and the cost of a medical cannabis prescription can seem out of reach. The CAMS survey found that the average price of a cannabis prescription was $274 per month, but there is a lot of variation depending on your chosen product and dose.
Right now, there are already some health insurance plans that offer full or partial coverage for medical cannabis. It can be hoped that more health insurance plans and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will extend the range covered in the future.
Making the Switch to Prescribed Medical Cannabis
The boom in medical cannabis prescriptions should be celebrated. It means more Australians than ever have access to safe, appropriate treatments for a wide range of chronic conditions. However, there’s a long way to go before everyone has the prescription they need.
With that said, there are a number of risks associated with the use of medical cannabis and your doctor will explain these to you before issuing a prescription. Medical cannabis affects everyone differently and may not help with your chronic condition.