Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Medical Use of Cannabis

I wrote this article just over a year ago but I could not find a paying home for it, so here it is. 

Up until the twentieth century, cannabis was frequently used in western medicine. But more effective painkillers such as those containing opiates were developed. And then concerns about recreational abuse of cannabis lead to its use being prohibited. Despite it being illegal, research continues into the medical uses of cannabis, and people continue to use it as a medicine.

Recent research at Tel Aviv University in Israel studied the effects of cannabis on Crohns Disease. Eleven of the study’s participants smoked cannabis twice daily, while ten others smoked a placebo where the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) had been removed from the cannabis. The Crohns disease of five of the eleven who smoked the unaltered cannabis went into full remission. But so did the Crohns Disease of one of those in the placebo group. The researchers say more research needs to be done.

Research is also under way into the effect of cannabis on medical conditions such as ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and arthritis. Cancer cells have been killed by cannabis in experiments. Cannabis use has decreased nausea and increased appetites in people undergoing chemotherapy and who are HIV positive. Cannabis is used by many people battling chronic pain. Cannabis is also reported to help in the treatment of hepatitis C, skin cancer, migraines, morning sickness, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 

Possession of cannabis is illegal 

Anyone tempted to conduct their own personal research into the effect of cannabis on their medical condition should be aware they are committing a crime. In Victoria anyone caught with less than 50 grams of cannabis risks being fined $700 for possession. They can be fined a further $700 if they are caught using it. The Victorian Legal Aid website says first offenders will usually get a caution, rather than be charged and fined. People caught with more than 50 grams risk being charged with trafficking drugs and sentenced to jail. 

Harmful effects of cannabis 

According to the Victorian Health Department’s Better Health website, short term use of cannabis can cause:

·         impaired coordination

·         drowsiness

·         confusion

·         vomiting

·         hallucinations

·         detachment from reality

·         anxiety

·         and paranoia.

Long term use of cannabis can cause:

·         poor concentration

·         memory loss

·         an inability to learn new tasks

·         increased risk of infections

·         asthma

·         throat, mouth and lung cancers

·         and serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Many health professionals are very much against cannabis being smoked, but are more receptive to its medical use if it is taken in other ways. Cannabis can be smoked, eaten, diluted into a tincture, inhaled as a vapour, drunk as a tea or absorbed into the skin as a cream or from a nicotine type patch.

An oral spray

In November 2012 the oral spray Sativex was included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. The spray contains extracts from cannabis leaf and its flower. A change to the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons still needs to be approved before Sativex can be marketed in Australia. A final decision about that change is due on the 27th of June.

Research has shown that Sativex is effective in the treatment of symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. If approved, Sativex will only be prescribed to people with MS by authorised medical practitioners.

Sativex has equal parts THC, the psychoactive part of cannabis, and cannabidiol (CBD), which typically lowers the anxiety and psychotic symptoms of cannabis. So according to its manufacturer, GW Pharmaceuticals, Sativex does not produce a “high” in its users.

Trials of Sativex on pain in cancer patients are currently being conducted by Dr Brian Le, a palliative care specialist at Royal Melbourne Hospital. 

Unfortunately, Sativex could cost up to $500 a month because it will not be under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. 

NSW Government enquiry into medical cannabis 

In May this year (2013) a NSW Government committee released a report on “The Use of Cannabis for Medical Purposes.” Many of the submissions to that report suggested that cannabis should only be used when other legal drugs have not been effective for a patient.

The committee heard from many people who illegally use cannabis to self-medicate. They were told of a national survey where 18 per cent of Australians with HIV said they used cannabis as a complementary medicine. A person with Degenerative Disc Disease told the committee how she managed to get her pain under control by eating cannabis butter and cookies. She no longer had to take a long list of pain killers that left her wanting to spend all day in bed.

The report recommended the legalisation of the medical use of cannabis for people with a terminal illness and AIDS. They also recommended that the NSW Minster for Health write to the Commonwealth Minister for Health and Ageing expressing support for the evidence based approval of cannabis for other patient groups,  including those suffering chronic pain for whom existing pain management was not effective. 

Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation


Alex Wodak is the Emeritus consultant at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst and president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.  He wrote on The Conversation website that the legalisation of cannabis for people with terminal conditions was a good start. He said this should be a national approach. He also said cannabis would be cheaper than many currently available medicines. 

Victorian Government 

A senior media advisor at the Victorian Department of Health, said: "Currently there are no plans in Victoria for an inquiry into the medicinal uses of cannabis.” He went on to say “The Victorian Government will monitor closely any plans to implement the recommendations of the recent NSW inquiry into the medicinal use of cannabis among a very specific group of patients.” 



Sativex was approved but because it was not placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme the manufacturer decided not to make it available in Australia.

Lucy Haslam has a petition on change.org to get medical cannabis decriminalised so her terminally ill son can use it. She recently got the NSW Premier Mike Baird onboard (picture). 




NSW Government inquiry: http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/committee.nsf/0/7641E8D87AC53FB3CA257ABF00134E57

Alex Wodak – President Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, article written for the website The Conversation:

Victorian Legal Aid, drug possession in Victoria:


Sativex trials in Victoria:

Better Health Channel, harmful health effects of cannabis:

Crohns cannabis study


Anthony J. Langford said...

Very informative Graham.
I do hope that the powers that (have no idea) be, come to their senses as far as pain management goes.

As for making it completely legal, I'm not so sure. Some people I've known who used it long term ended up not so sharp, and prone to bouts of depression. I guess the same would go for any drug, let alone alcohol.
Short term usage though, and for those who genuinely need it, it should definitely be made available.

Graham Clements said...

Thanks Anthony, I'm very aware of its harmful effects to. But what harm can it do to someone who is terminally ill? Recently the police arrested a woman in Victoria who was given a tincture to her son who had a disability. It seemed to help him concentrate. From my reading of the submissions to the NSW government enquiry, a tincture is a massively dilluted liquid, a bit like aroma therapy, so there is no way a person could get high from a cannabis tincture. But they are still illegal.

maggie.danhakl@healthline.com said...

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