Australian GP: 'We need easier access to medicinal cannabis to reduce opioid use'
Dr Orit Holtzman believes more doctors need to be educated about the benefits of medical cannabis. (Supplied)
An Australian GP has called for patients to be given easier and cheaper access to medicinal cannabis, claiming it will reduce the harm associated with highly-addictive and potentially deadly opioids.
Dr Orit Holtzman, who practices in New South Wales, said Australia's laws currently prevent medical cannabis being offered a first-line treatment, with patients instead given opioids or medication for neuropathic pain before they can be considered.
In NSW, patients require one clinical assessment from the Therapeutic Goods Association before being given access to the drug - previously, approvals had to be overseen by both the Commonwealth and NSW Health departments.
"It's a huge issue that patients are forced to take opioids even if they wish to try medical cannabis first or if their treating doctor thinks it could be good for their needs," Dr Holtzman told nine.com.au.
"Cannabis should be a first-line treatment because of its low addiction profile and minimal side effect."
Dr Holtzman said a lack of education was to blame for the views on cannabis within a medical environment, with many doctors reluctant to consider the treatment option.
"There's a stigma that still sees cannabis as a drug of addition rather than a medication," she said.
"I had to actively seek information and training. Most doctors are either not interested in doing that or they put it in the 'too hard basket' because you can't just pull out a prescription pad like you can with other prescription drugs.
"Even my judgement as a medical doctor doesn't make things straight forward, with patients required to meet requirements under the Special Access Scheme before treatment is offered."
Dr Holtzman wants relaxed laws for medical cannabis to be introduced Australia-wide and is also calling for the medicine to be added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to reduce the price of prescriptions.
"It's troubling that people benefiting from medicinal cannabis had to stop because they can't afford the cost of treatment," she said.
"A lot of patients have seen very good results from my personal experience and the drug has a better safety profile and less side effects than they do with opioid medication.
"I'm also not seeing an escalation in dosage like you would with opioids, in fact I have seen people even reduce the dosage as time has passed."
Mathew Sieders and his wife (Supplied)
One of Dr Holtzman's patients, Matthew Sieders, has been using medicinal cannabis to treat chronic pain caused by a workplace injury which resulted in a broken back.
He was given a referral to see the GP when sourcing an alternative treatment after experiencing horrific side effects from opioid pain medication.
"I had a really nasty experience with tramadol after taking a really high dose for two to three years," Mr Sieders told nine.com.au.
"The process of getting off the drug was one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced mentally. I lost 15kgs and it even affected the love life with my wife as I lost my natural drive.
"You really aren't informed of the trouble you're going to face down the track after using opioids."
Mr Sieders said medicinal cannabis has been a game changer for his pain when compared the results he experienced from opioids.
"My quality of life and mood completely improved when I tried medicinal cannabis. I wasn't so much of a zombie," he said.
Each month, Mr Sieders is required to pay $250 for his oil treatment and a further $360 for additional product to be vaporised when needs to dissociate from breakthrough pain.
He criticised the high cost of medical cannabis, saying many patients would be forced to take PBS approved opiates because it's cheaper than the natural alternative.
"The cost is extremely expensive. I'm only willing to suffer the cost for quality of life, but it's definitely a drain as I have six kids to support," he said.
"Not only do I have the cost of the actual medicine, but I have to visit the doctor every time I need a new prescription – this $80 consult is on top of everything else.
"There's also the issue where the pharmacy dictates the price of the medication, with many adding mark-ups to already unaffordable medicine."