Doctors fear NSW Health ‘bias’ denies patients relief through medicinal cannabis

Doctors fear NSW Health ‘bias’ denies patients relief through medicinal cannabis
ANNABEL HENNESSY, The Daily Telegraph
December 10, 2017 11:00pm

TERMINALLY ill patients with federal government approval for medical cannabis are still being blocked by NSW Health from obtaining the drug more than a year after it was made legal.

Doctors tell The Daily Telegraph they are fearful NSW Health has “an automatic bias” against medical cannabis and are finding it impossible to have prescriptions approved even after it has been granted by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

In other cases the approval process is taking so long they say they are worried patients will die before they get access.

The concerns come weeks after former premier Mike Baird told The Daily Telegraph that governments must “move quickly” to ensure patients can use the drug, shown to relieve pain and restore appetite where other medications have failed.

But Blue Mountains GP Teresa Towpik said desperate families were being forced to go to the black market because the approval system was so complicated.

“I can prescribe morphine with the touch of a button, but because of the bias against medical cannabis we have to jump through all these hoops,” she said.

When Dr Towpik tried to prescribe the drug for one patient, she said she was “interrogated” for half an hour by a NSW medical officer.

She said it had a lot of potential for helping patients but most doctors did “not want to be involved” because of the bureaucracy involved.

Eastern Sydney GP Brad McKay said he’d also had several applications rejected and was at the point of “giving up”.

He said NSW Health were trying everything to put doctors off prescribing including warning them their indemnity insurance may not cover medical cannabis.

“It’s a weird situation where they are creating their own rules, Dr McKay said.

“We’ve been told that GPs are welcome to apply but cannot prescribe. Essentially they think GPs are too stupid to prescribe it ourselves.”

Dr McKay told of one patient whose application was held up so long by both the TGA and NSW Health they had only been able to gain access to the drug in the final week of their chemotherapy.

Lex McLean has been fighting for his wife Kathy to get access to the drug since the start of the year. The 69-year-old suffers from Lewy Body and Parkinson’s disease and is so sick she can no longer feed or wash herself.

Ms McLean’s GP, Dr Towpik, has applied for medical cannabis and has the backing of a neurologist but despite two TGA approvals it has been blocked by NSW Health on the grounds there was not enough “clinical evidence” to prove the drug could help her.

Dr Towpik said she had spent “hours and hours” trying to argue the McLeans case.

“I’m at the point where I don’t know what to do and am looking at going to the black market if there is no option,” Mr McLean said.

Kathy McLean, 69
Photo: Kathy McLean, 69, with her granddaughter Brooke, 10.

Daughter Kirsten Graham said obtaining the drug was so difficult, it “might as well be illegal”.

“The real heartache for us is the time it’s taking,” she said. “We’re wondering if it will be too late. We know the risks and are willing to be the trial ... to have it blocked is devastating.”

Medical Organic Cannabis Australia director Alessandro Sorbello is developing techniques in the production and cultivation of medical grade organic marijuana. He said the company had also been held up by red tape during the licensing process.

Mr Sorbello said Australia was falling behind other countries.

“Given our good reputation and climate we have the potential to be a leader in the field,” he said.

“The evidence that medical cannabis works is there, it’s just ignorance and fear holding us back.”

A NSW Health spokesman said there had been 64 applications to use medical cannabis since it was legalised, of which 55 had been granted. It is estimated there are about 100,000 patients sourcing it on the black market.

Terminally ill to get faster access to cannabis

Health Minister Brad Hazzard, however, said the government had just announced a $6 million hotline to help advise doctors.

He said he was “very enthusiastic” about medical cannabis but policy was “a balancing act” and long-term effects were not yet known.

When asked if he thought NSW Health has a “bias” against medical cannabis, Mr Hazzard said traditionally the medical community “as a whole” had not been in favour.