Although it is becoming easier to access medicinal cannabis in Australia, major legal reform is still needed.
Part of the problem is how difficult it can be for patients to be approved for a prescription, which requires a doctor to lodge an application with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Originally this could take weeks, however in 2018 the Australia government promised to streamline the approval process, allowing patients to gain access to the drug within 48 hours. While this is a promising step forward, prescription rates are still lagging behind other countries, with figures from the TGA showing that approximately 5,200 people have been approved as of April 2019.
Comparatively, data collected by the German Cannabis Association has shown that there are already as many as 50,000-60,000 patients in Germany who have been prescribed medicinal marijuana, despite the drug only being legalised in 2017.
While the government claims that wait-times are improving, it's clear that many Australians are still struggling to gain access to medicinal cannabis.
However, one West Australian man may have found a way around the issue, after discovering a loophole that allows him to legally import cannabis into the country.
Not Ganja Believe This
Jim Plamondon—a former resident of Bussleton—claims he has become the first patient to successfully import cannabis into Australia by making use of the TGA's Traveller's Exemption bypass.
The TGA Traveller's Exemption allows patients—and their carers—who are travelling abroad to bring up to three months' worth of prescribed therapeutic goods into the country for medicinal purposes, even if they would otherwise be viewed as a non-controlled substance. Although the Traveller's Exemption does require holders to have legally accessed the drug through a pharmacist, the legislation does not specify any country of origin for the prescription.
This has allowed Plamondon—who now resides in Thailand—to legally import Thai-prescribed cannabis products into WA to treat his chronic pain. When he landed at Perth Airport on 8 April, he passed through customs without issue by simply ticking the box on his arrival card stating that he was bringing "goods that may be prohibited or subject to restrictions" into the country.
"If they suffer from any of the 38 medical conditions for which Thailand's doctors can prescribe cannabis – including chronic pain – then they can visit Thailand and bring home a three-month supply of Thai-prescribed and Thai-legal medical cannabis declaring it to Australian customs and claiming it under the Traveller's Exemption as I did," Plamondon said.
"Do this 'Thailand twist' every three months and you can have medical cannabis year-round without battling the Australian government's broken medical cannabis."
Plamondon stated that no issues were raised by customs officials once they ascertained that the CBD oil he was carrying had been prescribed by a Thai medical practitioner, neglecting to even examine his bags.
Although recreational cannabis is still illegal in Thailand, the country recently elected to legalise its use for medicinal purposes if the patient is given a prescription by a licensed doctor, dentist, or traditional medical practitioner.
Currently, Thai practitioners are allowed to prescribe the drug for 38 different medical conditions, including epilepsy, chronic pain and cancer.
While many of these illnesses are similarly endorsed for cannabis-based treatment by the TGA, Thai medical regulations also cover a much broader spectrum of conditions, such as ADHD, migraines, menstrual cramps and concussions.
"No other country offers the combination of benefits that Thailand offers within a single jurisdiction. Thailand has not only the large medical tourism industry, it also has an unparalleled system of traditional medicine that is regulated and standardized."
– Vice-President of Marketing, Jim Plamondon
Plamondon, who is employed as the vice-president of marketing for a Thailand-based advocacy group, Thai Cannabis Corporation, argues that his newly discovered loophole will open the doors for Australian patients to source medicinal cannabis from other countries, bypassing the TGA's restrictive regulations.
He also called on the Australian government to improve their efforts to streamline the cannabis prescription process, noting that only 1 percent of the country's 3.24 million chronic pain sufferers are likely to gain access to the drug over the next twelve months.
Plamondon urged the government to loosen regulations and improve access by adding GPs to the list of accredited practitioners (AP) who can legally prescribe the drug without the need for approval from the TGA.
Presently, medical practitioners who wish to qualify as an AP must first undertake a rigorous application process, which includes obtaining approval from the TGA, an endorsement from an ethics committee, and the completion of any additional state or territory requirements.
"It's time for Australia's government to give Australian battlers a fair go at medical cannabis by making cannabis as easy for family GPs to prescribe as codeine, and as easy for pharmacists to supply," Plamondon said.
"Until then the only legal hope for millions of Australian chronic pain patients is the 'Thailand twist'."
Although Plamondon's suggestion might seem outlandish, it may actually be the easiest option for Australians who are struggling to find an AP or a GP who is willing to lodge an application to the TGA on their behalf.
There were only 57 APs operating across Australia as of 31 March 2019, however due to privacy laws patients are prevented from specifically searching for one.
The TGA has also signalled that it is unwilling to disclose information about the number of APs active in individual Australian states. This has left many patients—such as 89-year-old Olive Wraight from Bunbury in Perth—unable to access the medicinal cannabis that they direly need.
Wraight spent more than a year attempting to legally access the drug, however during that time she was unsuccessful in locating either an AP or a GP who was willing to prescribe it. Eventually, she was forced to turn to members of her church's congregation for help before subsequently being put in touch with a supplier.
"The base of my skull to the end of my spine is totally compromised with fractures, collapsed discs and herniated discs. I know pain. I have lived in pain constantly. I was about to give up my life because I simply could not continue to live the way I was," Wraight said.
"Within two days I was feeling the difference between that and my other medications. By the end of the week I was sold on it. I have never felt this good in years."
Australia's Pot Position is Hazy
While access to medicinal marijuana is improving, the necessity of Plamondon's "Thailand twist" indicates that Australia's cannabis laws are still in desperate need of reform.
According to a researcher from the Lambert Initiative For Cannabinoid Therapeutics at Sydney University, Iain McGregor, the Australian government is "erring too far on the side of caution" when it comes to medicinal cannabis.
"I think other similar OECD countries have decided to give cannabis the benefit of the doubt, particularly in patients who are desperate," McGregor said.
Australia's legislative landscape has continued to lag behind the rest of the world, which has left many patients unable to access medicinal cannabis, despite the improved processing times for the TGA's Specialised Access Scheme.
Until things change, people like Jim Plamondon and Olive Wraight will continue to find new ways to access cannabis in Australia, even if it means that they have to skirt the law.