Can Cannabis Solve Australia's Chronic Pain Crisis?

As Australians get older, their likelihood to suffer from chronic pain issues increases. Can medical cannabis provide a safer solution than opioids?

Rosemarie is a 57-year-old Tasmanian pensioner who suffers from fibromyalgia, Crohn's disease and three different types of arthritis. With shin splints keeping her up at night and pain that stopped her from getting out of bed most mornings, Rosemarie's life as a mother and a grandmother was put on hold.

Allergic reactions prevent Rosemarie from using morphine and traditional opioid medications, and so she thought she would have to live out the rest of her life in agony, until she found Cannabis Access Clinics.

"I don't know where I would be if I didn't find CA Clinics and get prescribed cannabis oil. I could not live without it."

CA Clinics help to manage patients' journey to being prescribed medical cannabis, through their team of medical cannabis professionals, academics, and researchers dedicated to providing Australians with services that may include CBD oils and THC treatments for chronic conditions.

CA Clinics prescribes medical cannabis but pharmacies dispense and charge for the medication separately.

Rosemarie's recycled flowerpot made from an old poncho.

Now, after taking cannabis oil for just over a year, Rosemarie says that her pain levels went from a 10 to a 3.

Rosemarie no longer needs crutches or help to get out of her car when she spends time with her children or grandchildren.

She also says medical cannabis brought back her "creative flare," allowing her to return to her hobbies such as gardening and creating art out of recycled materials.

Before, I couldn't function.Rosemarie Jenkins, a medical cannabis patient through CA Clinics

Chronic Pain in Australia

With Australia's population growing older on average, the prevalence of chronic pain is increasing. One in five Aussies aged over 45 reports suffering from chronic pain, which leads to a lowered quality of life with more time spent visiting doctors and fewer days at work.

It's estimated that chronic pain cost the Australian economy $139 billion in 2018, a number that will grow as the population aged 75 or more years is expected to rise by 4 million from 2012 to 2060.

And unlike Rosemarie, many Australian's turn to opioid medications for their pain relief, which come with their own host of issues.

1-in-10 people who take opioids develop addiction issues, and then the risk of overdose arises. In 2015, 69% of drug overdoses were due to a prescription drug.

So, can medical cannabis provide the answer to this growing problem?

Eli Turner believes it can.

Eli was posted to an infantry paratrooper unit, as well as a special forces unit in the Australian army throughout his career, and now suffers from severe arthritis in his spine and both knees, fibromyalgia, PTSD, and severe general anxiety.

Despite being just 40 years old, Eli's chronic pain prevents him from working and even socialising.

My whole day revolves around managing the pain.Eli Turner, retired member of the special forces unit who uses medical cannabis to deal with his chronic pain

Eli Turner
Eli Turner uses medical cannabis to deal with his arthritis

Though unlike Rosemarie, Eli's reasoning for not using morphine stems from witnessing many of his friends become addicted to it and fearing addiction himself.

"I have several mates in the army with bad backs, bad knees, and I would guess that about 60% of people who leave the army leave with broken bodies," said Eli of the chronic pain that befell his infantry after leaving the army.

Now, nearly two years into using CBD oil, a non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis, Eli can sleep without being awoken by pain in the night.

"CBD oil helps prevent my body from seizing up and allows me to go to the physio and the gym more, and then it helps me to sleep, which in turn helps to further reduce the pain. It's a snowball effect."

Not only that, but his use of medicinal cannabis has helped Eli quit smoking cigarettes.

Eli's service in the army means that his cannabinoid medicines are paid for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which he describes as a lifesaver as his medications would cost him $1,234 per month. Prior to being prescribed cannabis, Eli had to turn to the black market in order to self-medicate.

"The fact that I don't have to break the law anymore is a huge weight off my shoulders. I don't even jay walk, so it means a lot to me to be a law-abiding citizen again."  

However, Eli stresses, the price of medical cannabis is coming down and is now very close to black market prices, with a "much higher quality" and less of the drowsiness that accompanies illicit cannabis.

Both Eli and Rosemarie were prescribed their cannabis by Cannabis Access Clinics' Dr. Mark Hardy, who entered the cannabis space after seeing the damage that addiction can do.

From Addiction to Action: Focusing on Cannabis

Working as a GP at a clinic in King's Cross, Dr. Mark Hardy saw the dangers of addiction both inside and outside of his clinic, among patients using prescription medications and people in the street abusing illicit drugs.

"I had this sort of cognitive dissonance over the use of opioid painkillers for chronic pain, because I wasn't seeing tremendous results with them, but I was seeing higher and higher levels of people becoming addicted to even what we would call milder opioids."

During this time, the research surrounding medical cannabis was beginning to grow, and represented a hopeful alternative to the medications Dr. Hardy was accustomed to prescribing.

"I wanted to treat chronic pain in a less impactful or less dangerous way, and that's where cannabis came into the picture. It's harder to kill people with a cannabinoid than it is with an opioid. As long as you get getting enough pain relief for people, without as large a risk of overdose, then I think you've done them some good."

Recent figures from the Therapeutic Goods Administration show that prescriptions of cannabinoid medications are rapidly rising throughout Australia, meanwhile the costs of these medications are starting to come down.

A Political Solution?

We spoke with Cate Faehrmann, a Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council, who will be introducing a Legalise Cannabis Bill in the next couple of months in the hopes of legalising the use and possession of cannabis, establishing a regulatory framework for its production and sale while preventing the domination of the industry by big corporate entities.

"The TGA reported in late 2019 that every day nearly 150 hospitalizations, 14 emergency department admissions and 3 deaths in Australia involve opioid harm." 

"This doesn't even account for the people that, requiring pain killers after some sort of injury, end up depending on those opioids long after the pain is gone," Cate continued.

Cate's passion for legalizing cannabis stems precisely from this issue of opioid use, and she hopes she can curtail other Australian's from experiencing issues with these frontline medicines.

"I know all too well what harm this causes as my mother was addicted to prescription drugs for a number of decades, including opioids and benzodiazepines."

"Medicinal cannabis is a much better form of pain relief, without the risks of causing dependence or hospitalisation. There are still going to be some conditions that require opioid painkillers, but we should be transitioning away from opioid prescriptions and towards medical cannabis wherever appropriate."

However, she adds, while there are still some positive changes to the medical cannabis landscape in Australia, there are still some hurdles to be overcome.

"The biggest impediment to medicinal cannabis is that most products have not been assessed and approved by the TGA for safety quality or effectiveness. This means the conditions that medicinal cannabis can be used to treat remain limited, with patients having to go through a cumbersome approvals process to get access." 

"The TGA's decision late last year to allow 150mg dose CBD products able to be sold over the counter at pharmacies across Australia is a very positive sign. It's the beginning of a much broader range of medicinal cannabis products gaining TGA approval and will normalise the use of medicinal cannabis."

"Most political parties in Australia are still too afraid to touch the topic of cannabis legalisation even though the massive economic and social benefits that legalisation would bring are needed even more in the time of COVID-19."  

A Pain-Free Future

Should political and legislative campaigns such as Cate's succeed, more Australians will be able to access cannabis to treat their chronic pain as we get older as a nation.

Moreover, as more doctors become aware of the harms of opioid misuse, as Dr. Hardy did, they may similarly find themselves looking to cannabis as a preferable prescription option.

There are many obstacles for the cannabis industry to overcome, however, the momentum is definitely swinging as more patients are approved to be prescribed cannabis medicines, and as the cost of cannabinoid medications goes down.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.