Changes to regulations last year, made it legal for health professionals to prescribe medicinal cannabis products to patients in need where there was evidence to support its use. However, the lack of available medicinal cannabis products in Australia, either through import or domestic supply, meant that patients were still unable to access the product.
Health Minister, Greg Hunt, yesterday announced measures to fast-track authorisation for international suppliers to import the medication to increase supply (potentially within 8 weeks) until licensed domestic supplies are secured. The first license was also issued to an Australian company to legally cultivate and conduct research on cannabis. Reports indicate that it may take up to one year before this supply is up and running.
The discussion regarding the use of medicinal cannabis in Australia has mainly focused on cancer patients for pain control, or nausea associated with chemotherapy, and for children with a particular form of epilepsy that does not respond to other medications. However, discussions have also included the use of medicinal cannabis for MS.
MS Research Australia and MS Australia have been very active in responding to the many state and national government inquiries and reviews into the regulations surrounding medicinal cannabis use over the last few years. We have strongly advocated for access to approved, quality-assured formulations of cannabis-based products for people with MS based on the clinical evidence for its efficacy in managing some of the symptoms of MS.
There has been a number of clinical trials looking at medicinal cannabis for MS. None of these have proven medical cannabis to treat the relapses or progression of MS. However, cannabis-derived products have been shown to help alleviate the spasticity associated with MS. Clinical trials of cannabis-based products to treat pain in MS have provided mixed results. However, a review by the American Academy of Neurology in 2014 concluded that cannabis-based medications could provide pain relief for some people with MS.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia (TGA) has a provided pages on their website with factsheets and information for patients and healthcare providers about the prescription of medicinal cannabis products and providing an overview of current regulations.
To date the only cannabis-derived product that has been approved for use in MS by the Therapeutic Goods Administration is Sativex. This was approved in 2012, however the regulations surrounding cannabis at that time meant that it was not made available in the country.
As indicated above and in media reports, it may still take some weeks for medicinal cannabis products to become available in Australia. People with MS should discuss with their neurologist or GP whether medicinal cannabis may be appropriate for their circumstances and symptoms.