Too High To Get High? How Medical Marijuana Prices Have Pushed Australians To The Black Market

Do you get your weed from a doctor or a dealer? Turns out, more people are getting a better price from their dealer.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

The decades worth of stigma surrounding cannabis are finally beginning to wash off, as countries and states continue to legalize the plant for medicinal and recreational purposes.

Huge strides have been made using cannabinoid medicine, most notably in 2018 when GW Pharma became the first company to receive FDA approval for their epilepsy drug 'Epidiolex', a CBD-based drug which is used to treat rare forms of epilepsy.

Early studies also revealed that conditions like Alzheimers, Crohns disease, Appetite loss and Cancer may also be aided by cannabis-based products, suggesting that the drug may serve as a potential substitute for many of our existing medicines.

Although, the benefits of cannabis will likely seem like old news to most, as an estimated 100,000 Australian's use cannabis to self-medicate. And, the majority of them are using cannabis that they've acquired from the black market.

To put that in perspective, it's believed that Australia will reach 20,000 legal prescriptions for cannabis by early 2020. This means that 4/5 Australians who use cannabis as a form of medicine get the plant from their dealer rather than their doctor.

So why is this? Do dealers provide better product than doctors?

Chances are, no, they don't. In fact, there's slim chance that your local dealer has the same equipment and resources that an established medical cannabis company would have.

So why are people still turning to the black market?

Well, there's a few reasons.

As we covered in a previous article, many doctors still feel uncomfortable prescribing cannabis, as they simply don't know a great deal about the plant and there isn't a huge wealth of research to dig into. Medicinal cannabis legalization is still quite new, and doctors haven't yet caught up.

However, one of the most prominent reasons seems to be the cost of medical cannabis prescriptions.

medical marijuana

Dealer or No Dealer

According to data collected by Cannabis Access Clinics, the average patient using medical marijuana is spending $370 per month on their medicine. This alone is 25 percent higher than what someone would pay for cannabis on the black market.

It doesn't end there, either. If you, or someone you look after suffers from epilepsy, you could be looking at an enormous $1,000 a month.

In the case of Marina Spence—a mother from Perth—she pays $533 for a bottle of cannabinoid medicine for her daughter's epilepsy, which lasts her about six days.

However, she has little choice but to bite the bullet, as her daughter's epilepsy is severe. Marina's 13 year old daughter Mikhaila has a rare form of epilepsy which has left her in a wheelchair and makes her extremely sensitive to all stimuli.

This includes light, noise, and movement, which can each send her into a cycle of seizuring, screaming and then seizuring again.

After testing virtually every medicine on the market, Marina was forced to look abroad, and found a Canadian company which produced an isolate Cannabidiol (CBD) product designed to improve the symptoms of epilepsy.

After several months of waiting, Marina received approval from the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) to legally use this product, and was able to pick it up from her pharmacy shortly after.

However, what seemed like a huge win for the mother and daughter duo quickly unraveled the second they found the price-tag on the bottle; $533.

When asked how she will continue to pay for the medicine, the desperate mother responded:

I don't know. Maybe we'll end up on the street.

Other families, like Michael Lambert, have simply turned to the black market.

Mr. Lambert's daughter also suffered from epilepsy, and the medicine cost $585 for just four days' worth of treatment.

"The minimum dose recommended on the bottle is $140 a day and I can get it [for] $7.50 a day on the black market," he said.

And so, Mr. Lambert turned to the black market, in order to help his suffering daughter.

Unfortunately, while this may seem like a noble act, it was still considered illegal in the eyes of the courts, leadingMr. Lambert to eventually be charged with the possession and cultivation of cannabis.

Other families, who were less inclined to break the law, have been forced to sell their home to pay for their children's medicine.

medical marijuana

Why is it so expensive?

With parents forced to pay a premium for their cannabis medicine, it's no surprise that many are turning to cheaper, albeit illegal avenues.

The high prices for cannabis-derived medicines occur for several reasons.

Firstly, many of the current medicines on the market are actually more expensive than what we pay at the pharmacy. This is thanks to the PBS, or Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The PBS is a scheme that lowers the costs of medicine through government subsidies, allowing patients to access affordable healthcare when needed. When it comes to cannabis medicines, however, no drugs have been added to the PBS. This leaves patients with no option but to pay the entire price of an already expensive medicine.

Additionally, the Australian medicinal cannabi industry is still in its infancy. This has meant that there have been limited products on the market, and little competition among brands.

According to cannabis industry analyst Rhys Cohen, this undersupply of cannabis medicines has also led to a large supply chain, which adds further costs at every step of the way.

"There might be a cultivator overseas, a manufacturer, an international distributor, a local distributor, and a pharmacy … all taking their cut," Cohen said.

"I think it's fair to say Australians are getting gouged by some opportunists."

Additionally, there are large disparities between the most expensive cannabis medicines and the least expensive.

This gap in pricing is due mostly to the different approaches that companies take to their products. Some take a pharmaceutical approach, investing in patents and clinical trials, while others manufacture generic products with limited research backing and no patents.

Just as there has been little choice in regard to products, there has also been a lack of price differences.

However, as prescriptions ramp up, so too will the number of cannabis medicines available for the market. In fact, according to Freshleaf Analytics the number of new products available has already jumped by 40% in just 6 months, with Australian doctors now having a choice of 76 products to prescribe from.

Put simply, the more products that enter the market, the better chance patients have of finding a product that fits within their budget.

medical marijuana

The Future of Australia's Medicinal Marijuana Landscape

While Australians have faced hurdles when it comes to accessing medicinal marijuana, we are seeing rapid change.

More companies are beginning to flood the medicinal market, such as THC Global and Cannatrek, who have each purchased enormous cannabis facilities recently. Continued efforts such as theirs to bring Australian cannabis cultivation onshore will effectively remove many of the expensive steps along the supply chain and lower the end cost for patients.

Freshleaf Analytics also announced in their latest Q3 report, that patient spending has in fact decreased by 13% in the past 6 months.

Despite many Australian's continuing to turn to the black market for their cannabis, legal avenues are seeing a definite uptick in prescriptions.

Though Freshleaf does admit there are some hurdles to the future growth of the medical marijuana landscape in Australia.

The analytics company mentions a necessity for streamlining the process of being prescribed CBD medicines, citing that there are "far more dangerous medicines that are more easily available to Australians" than Cannabidiol.

Freshleaf goes on to mention the laws surrounding THC consumption and driving, which can cause hesitancy among doctors when prescribing cannabis-derived products, stating that legislation needs to "move out of the grey and into the black and white."

It's estimated that currently 1% of Australia's market for medical marijuana has been prescribed, leaving 99% of the market untapped. Despite this, Freshleaf believes the annualized revenue for medical marijuana products and services in Australia will be around the $50 million range.

It's clear that marijuana can provide relief to those in pain, and it's also clear that a lot of Australian's are in pain. All that's left is putting two and two together.

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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.

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