Photo: Olive Wraight has been treating her chronic pain with medicinal cannabis. (ABC South West: Sebastian Neuweiler)
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At 89 years old, a suicidal Olive Wraight walked into her church in Bunbury, south of Perth, and asked her congregation a compromising question: "I need medicinal cannabis. Can anyone help me?"
Olive Wraight tried to access medicinal cannabis for chronic pain relief through legal channels for more than a year
The 89-year-old is one of an estimated 100,000 people using 'home grown' cannabis products to treat medical problems
There are 57 authorised prescribers in Australia, but privacy laws prevent patients from being able to search for them
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She had heard whispers that some of the congregation had used medicinal cannabis for pain, and it had greatly improved their quality of life.
It's not something Ms Wraight thought she would have to resort to.
For more than a year, she tried accessing medicinal cannabis through legal channels, with no luck.
She's one of an estimated 100,000 people who are using 'home-grown' cannabis products to treat medical problems.
"The base of my skull to the end of my spine is totally compromised with fractures, collapsed discs and herniated discs," she said.
"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."
Photo: Olive Wraight takes two medicinal cannabis pills a day. (ABC South West: Sebastian Neuweiler)
Ms Wraight had been treating her worsening chronic pain with an ever increasing cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs, including opioids, for 15 years.
But five months ago, after the sermon, someone put her in touch with a supplier. Her pharmaceutical pain relief was replaced with cannabis oil, and more recently cannabis pills, of which she takes two daily.
"Within two days I was feeling the difference between that and my other medications," she said.
"By the end of the week I was sold on it. I have never felt this good in years."
An 'impossible' mission
In theory there are two legal avenues Ms Wraight could pursue to obtain medicinal cannabis.
One option is to find a doctor who is an authorised prescriber (AP) of a specific cannabis medicine.
To become an AP, however, a medical practitioner must complete a rigorous application process.
It includes getting approval from the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA), obtaining endorsement from an ethics committee, and checking for additional state or territory requirements.
According to the TGA there were 57 authorised prescribers across Australia as of March 31.
But privacy laws prevent patients from being able to search for an AP.
A TGA spokeswoman said the association would not disclose how many APs were active in Western Australia.
Photo: Selling and using homemade medicinal cannabis oil is still illegal. (ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)
The second pathway is to find a GP willing to make an application for Commonwealth and state approval, under the Special Access Scheme B, in an online application.
Since its inception there have been 5,200 approvals via 600 doctors through the scheme; 500 of those approvals occurred in Western Australia.
Ms Wraight said she had found it impossible to find either an AP or a GP willing to make an application to the TGA.
A lack of understanding
Sanjay Nijhawan of Cannabis Access Clinics said there were two components in GPs' apprehension to prescribe.
"One of course is the lengthy process, which takes time and effort, and obviously Medicare does not reward that appropriately for the length of time you would spend on the patient," Dr Nijhawan said.
"Number two of course is the lack of understanding of how medical cannabis actually works."
Photo: Speakers attending a workshop in Nimbin, NSW asked for a moratorium on the arrest and prosecution of people using cannabis products as a medicine. (ABC North Coast: Catherine Marciniak)
WA Health Minister Roger Cook agreed there was a limited appreciation of medicinal cannabis in the state's primary care community.
"We're very much in the early days of understanding the impact of cannabinoids and their benefits for people suffering from a range of conditions," he said.
"Many doctors have said to me they'd be happy to prescribe cannabis-based medicines if they knew how much to prescribe and how long to prescribe it for.
"That's one of the mysteries we're still just getting to understand."
Costs remain sky high
Ms Wraight said another roadblock in accessing the drug legally was the cost.
Medicinal cannabis is not on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme so patients need to pay full price for products they are prescribed.
For a month's supply of cannabis pills, Ms Wraight pays between $80 and $100.
She said if she bought the product through a pharmacist, she could be paying up to $450 a month.
"It's a whole lot cheaper to buy it from the black market than it is to buy legally," she said.
"It's driving people underground and they're getting so fed up they're getting their supply wherever they can get it."
Photo: For 15 years Olive Wraight had treated her chronic pain with an ever increasing cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs, including opioids. (ABC South West: Sebastian Neuweiler)
The affordability of medicines prompted Mr Cook to raise the issue with Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
"I wrote to him last year to ask him to consider utilising the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme as a way of providing price or cost relief to patients," Mr Cook said.
"What he pointed out to me is that you can only use the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme once a drug has got TGA approval and once we understand better the impact for the patient.
"As other products come on the market you can see the increasing downward pressure on that price and hopefully they'll become more affordable."
'Resist the temptation'
Mr Cook urged Western Australians to be patient and "resist the temptation" of sourcing medicinal cannabis illegally.
"Don't trust them unless they are an approved supplier with Australian accreditation," he said.
"We know community sentiment is running ahead of the medical science on this.
"We are moving as quickly as possible so people don't feel tempted to buy online, to pick up some dodgy product from somewhere else."
Photo: Olive Wraight has replaced pharmaceutical drugs with cannabis pills. (ABC South West: Sebastian Neuweiler)
But for users like Ms Wraight, waiting is not an option.
"It's impossible to do this properly," she said.
"I'm 89 years old. I'm not going to be around for much longer.
"To live with my pain is absolutely demoralising.
"As long as I keep taking this, I am completely out of pain."
Originally published here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-14/89-year-old-asks-church-to-help-her-access-medicinal-cannabis/10985892