Cannabis therapy slow to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry

Cannabinoid treatments now available in Australia will disrupt the pharmaceutical pain sector, but the new industry is far from reaching its full potential, according to Australian company FreshLeaf Analytics, that analyses industry data.

“What is growing is the number of different products that are now available,” said FreshLeaf, Principal Consultant Rhys Cohen. “There are more than 100 products with various ratios of CBD and THC available from different companies.”

Cohen said that the newer cannabinoid offerings include lozenges and capsules, as well as whole oil concoctions and more traditional products, similar to the cannabis flower.

But despite the alternative drugs being available nationwide, it’s estimated that around only 10,000 Australian patients are using cannabinoid treatment.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration overseas a Special Access Scheme for doctor approval but only tracks the number of patients’ approved and not how many are actively taking the medicine.  

“We often have doctors try different strengths of medicine and different products, which all require new approval, so those figures are estimates,” said Cohen. “However, we expect that around 30,000 patients will be availing themselves of cannabinoid drugs by the end of 2020.”

Industry insiders claim that patients may “drop-off” once they start taking cannabis for the pain but they say that’s due to the prohibitive costs of the medicines, rather than disappointment with its effects.

The drugs are not available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and consequently, the average cost per patient is between $300 and $400 per month – or, $5 to $15 per day. 

Cohen said that Queenslanders represent the biggest patient group in Australia. 

“We think that’s because of the older population there with chronic pain conditions and the availability of cannabis clinics there,” he said.

How cannabis is prescribed

Andrew Glover, the General Manager of Cannabis Access Clinics in Australia, says that many busy GP’s don’t know how to go about seeking government approvals and prescribing cannabinoid treatments for their patients. 

His company is one of a dozen medical groups in Australia that provide specialist cannabinoid therapy consultations for patients. 

Cannabis Access Clinics have offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and on the Gold Coast, and they offer video consultations with patients in all states.  

“A lot of GPs are flat chat and they don’t have time to navigate the system or to develop the knowledge necessary to give them the confidence to prescribe,”  said Glover. 

“That’s where we can provide valuable help.” 

“Our doctors can assess whether a patient is suitable for treatment, seek the relevant government approvals, write a prescription – and, monitor the patient for the GP,” he said.

“And, once the doctors see how their patients improve, they are often enthusiastic about referring new patients to us.”

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has approved cannabinoid treatment for a range of conditions and most are for chronic pain conditions. 

One Industry insider told the NE that the TGA “rarely knock back a reasonable request.” 

Some companies even provide referral forms on their website for GPs and patients to download.

Conditions that may respond to cannabis treatment include: 

PTSD, Anxiety and Mood Disorders, Cancer, Spasticity, Parkinson’s Disease (Levodopa-Induced dyskinesia), Dystonias, Essential tremor, Movement disorders, Autism spectrum disorders and Aspergers, Restless legs syndrome, Crohn’s disease, Aggressive Behaviour, Diabetic Neuropathy, HIV/AIDS, Rheumatoid arthritis, Sciatica, Nerve root compression, Osteoarthritis, Migraine, Epilepsy / Seizure management, Nausea and vomiting, Cachexia, Anorexia, Loss of appetite, Fibromyalgia, Insomnia, Sleep Disorders, Essential tremor, Movement disorders

Typical patient

FreshLeaf’s Rhys Cohen says that the majority of pharmaceuticals prescribed in Australian come from overseas, particularly Canada. 

He said there are more Australian manufacturers starting to emerge. 

“We should see more Australian products hitting our shelves soon,” he said. 

And, while the cannabinoid pharmaceutical market and patient use are growing steadily each year, the price of the medication continues to be a block to a large number of Australians suffering from chronic pain. 

Cohen is confident that once cannabinoids are subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the industry will flourish. 

“Importantly, it will normalise the use of these medicines and make them more accessible to everyone.”