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Forging it’s Own Path: Medical Cannabis in Australia

Legalized in 2016, medical cannabis in Australia is just starting to get underway. The country is at a tipping point, thanks to the growing number of patients, an increasing number of registered prescribing practitioners, and more home-grown products than ever before.


Australia has, in many ways, forged a path of its own rather than following the approaches used in more mature markets like Canada or certain American states. It’s highly regulated, but this hasn’t seriously hampered market growth, especially in the last 12 months. Despite a few early challenges, it’s a market that seems to be on the edge of exponential growth.


The Evolution of Medical Cannabis Access In Australia 


As per “Medical cannabis use in the Australian community following introduction of legal access,” published in 2020, the legalization of medical cannabis in Australia was partially in response to the “increased robustness” of the scientific support for this plant and the explosion of interest among consumers. 


Leading up to the legislation passing in 2016, online surveys of Australians confirmed that most respondents were already consuming cannabis for therapeutic purposes, such as chronic pain and sleep disorders, yet they were all sourcing it illegally. 


In response to the widespread use but lack of access, the Australian government passed legislation that opened up access to medical cannabis for patients in November 2016. Access comes via a prescription from a registered healthcare professional and dispensed from a licensed pharmacy. Cannabis, under this model, is an unregistered medicine and managed under the Special Access and Authorized Prescriber Scheme. 


What the Medical Cannabis Landscape Looks Like in 2022


More than five years later, Australia’s number of registered patients is hitting a milestone. By the end of 2021, there were over 70,000 patients, according to FreshLeaf Analytics. Incredibly, this number exploded by 50 percent in only six months. There are also now 430 authorized prescribers. 


Sales revenue in 2021 was set to hit $230 million (AUD), with expectations that revenue in 2022 will hit another record — $400 million (AUD). 


The Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA), which is the body responsible for regulating medical cannabis products in Australia, has recently revamped its categorization. Now, products are categorized to reflect the “proportion of cannabidiol content compared with the total cannabinoid content of the medicine.” 


There are five categories of cannabis products, with Category 1 containing almost zero percent THC compared to CBD and Category 5 containing less than two percent CBD compared to THC.


FreshLeaf reports there are 224 products now available, covering various formats including flower, capsules, sprays, tinctures, and topicals. However, most cannabis in Australia still comes from imports, especially from Canada. In 2021, Australia brought in 8,654 litres of cannabis oil and over 600 kilograms of flower from Canada alone.


However, this imbalance of imports versus local production is set to change. FreshLeaf noted a “year-on-year increase of products available in Australia that sourced raw material locally or that were manufactured locally, with the number of Australian-grown and Australian-made products doubling over the past 12 months.”


Challenges in the Australian Market

Only recently has societal support for medicinal cannabis matched the level seen in other markets, particularly compared to North America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an online cross-sectional survey conducted between 2018 and 2019 among self-identified cannabis consumers found that 92 percent thought medical cannabis should be part of routine healthcare.


A more recent and broader survey published in 2021 found that 77 percent of respondents supported access to medicinal cannabis. Interestingly, only 40 percent supported recreational access. Personal experience was highly correlated with strong support for medical and recreational access.


By the end of 2021, a few market limitations remain. For example, the vast majority of responses from the 2018/2019 survey indicated that the federal regulatory framework “did not work well,” was “prohibitively expensive,” and the model was “difficult to negotiate.”


But these sentiments aren’t just held by consumers. They are echoed by those in the industry. MTPConnect reported that the main challenge for the Australian market remains strict regulation, particularly around production. The intense regulations around production impact product affordability and continued scientific efficacy research.


Has Australia Reached a Turning Point?

As more Australians get legal access to medical cannabis, there will naturally be an increasing familiarity with it. More people gaining direct experience, or knowing someone with direct experience with cannabis, typically leads to more social support. And social support often precipitates legislative change.


The current challenges in the Australian market are to be expected. With growing numbers of patients and prescribers, there are more voices calling for improvements to access and affordability. Especially regarding affordability, Australia is ramping up local production, which should substantially reduce prices. 


The Australian model is one to watch, as it aims to fit medical cannabis into a pharmaceutical model while still allowing for a broad spectrum of applications, formats, and prescriptions. Could it become the gold standard for other countries to replicate as legalization spreads? Its ability to overcome the current challenges will be a sure indication. 

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