Australian health regulators expect the number of medical cannabis prescriptions will climb to at least 70,000 in 2020 at the current rate of growth, but local experts predict the final number could be much higher.
That’s more than double the 30,000 approvals through the end of 2019, which the health ministry says roughly equates to the number of prescriptions.
“Even if there were no increase to the current rates of prescribing, by the end of 2020, about 70,000 prescriptions are anticipated to have been written in Australia,” the Department of Health wrote in a submission to a Senate committee studying Australia’s medical cannabis access.
Local experts say the actual tally could end up being much higher as monthly prescription rates continue to rise.
North Sydney-based data firm FreshLeaf Analytics estimates 140,000 prescriptions could be written for medical marijuana products by the end of 2020.
“In two years, the Australian medical cannabis framework has seen some incredible growth,” said Rhys Cohen, FreshLeaf’s principal consultant, “mostly due to the successful campaigning by patient advocates resulting in the streamlining of patient approval pathways.”
However, issues involving patient access to medical cannabis is currently the focus of a Senate inquiry.
“There are still some major obstacles to growth, including the unaffordability of products and lack of government subsidies,” Cohen said, “enduring legal and bureaucratic barriers to patient approvals in some states/territories, and our driving laws, which make it an offense for many patients to drive even while not impaired.”
The Senate Community Affairs References Committee plans to take an extra couple of weeks before issuing its findings by Feb. 26.
Patient count rises
Australia has seen incredible growth in the number of patients approved for medical cannabis treatment.
In 2017, roughly 457 patients accessed medical cannabis, rising to 2,526 in 2018.
That number soared to 15,566 patients in 2019.
“It is noteworthy that the rate of growth in patient and prescription numbers has actually been much faster – from the commencement of the regulatory scheme – in Australia than in Canada,” the health department noted.
“By mid-2014, 13 years after implementation of the first medicinal cannabis regulatory framework in Canada, there were only 7,900 registered patient users.”
The health department said the significant growth in estimated patient numbers correlates with an increase in the number of individual prescribers.
The number of registered health practitioners in Australia approved to supply medical cannabis – not including Sativex – increased from 108 in 2017 to 645 in 2018 and to 1,465 in 2019.
“This trend demonstrates improved confidence among prescribers and increased uptake in medicinal cannabis prescribing,” the ministry said.
Chronic pain leads
Unlike some other countries, Australia does not impose restrictions on the conditions or symptoms eligible for medical cannabis treatment.
Through Dec. 31, 2019, doctors prescribed treatment for roughly 27 conditions.
Applications for more than 130 medicinal cannabis products have been granted through existing “unapproved” access pathways, mainly via the Special Access Scheme Category B (also known as SAS B).
Chronic pain is by far the most common condition authorized for treatment by a medical cannabis product, with 15,490 approvals.
The other leading conditions approved for treatment as of Dec. 31, 2019, include:
- Cancer pain and other symptoms, 2,105.
- Neuropathic pain, 2,008.
- Anxiety, 1,576.
- Seizure management, 758.
Those conditions represent 87% of all SAS B prescriptions for medical cannabis.
Another 3,220 prescriptions were approved for 22 more conditions, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome (361), anorexia (312) and insomnia (312).
Need to know
- On average, decisions to approve medicinal cannabis applications were made within 30 hours of submission in 2019.
- 5% of SAS B applications required more information to be provided by the prescriber.
- 90% of medicinal cannabis applications were processed through the SAS.
Matt Lamers is Marijuana Business Daily’s international editor, based near Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].