23rd November 2021
By Roland Sebestyén
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In Australia, cannabis appears to face much of the same stigma and apparent contempt from the government as it does here in the UK. Despite legalisation, medical cannabis remains largely unaffordable and inaccessible down under – just as it is here. This recently prompted researchers to analyse the current mood towards the medicine by those in the medical community.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Cannabis Research, found that Australia’s professional medical publications are naturally positive towards medical cannabis and its presumed benefits. The study aimed to understand the reasons behind limited access to medical cannabis. Despite being legalised in 2016Australian patients are in the same situation as their British counterparts.

The ongoing stigma around cannabis means that only a limited number of patients have been able to secure the medicine they need.

Researchers analysed a total of 117 articles, published between 2000 and 2019 in some of the most important medical papers, including the Medical Journal of Australia, Australian Doctor and Medical Observer.

Discussion

While many will claim that mainstream media outlets have an agenda against cannabis (at least in the UK)the opinions and findings of experts and authors at professional medical publications are arguably worth more notice.

Before 2016, medical cannabis was a strictly banned – illegal – drug in Australia. However, since the law change, it is now approved for severe medical conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, refractory paediatric epilepsy, palliative care indications, cancer pain, neuropathic pain, spasticity from neurological conditions, anorexia and wasting associated with chronic illness (such as cancer).

Australia has come a long way – from outright bans on cannabis to adopting an ambition to be the largest medical cannabis exporter in the world. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go before Australia’s medical cannabis sector reaches its full potential.

According to a 2018 study, Australian GPs knew little to nothing about the cannabis-based products. This, unsurprisingly, has led to a lack of GPs willing and able to prescribe medical cannabis.

So basically, patients in Australia and the UK are in the same boat. There’s a “lifesaving” medicine that is legal but red tape around cannabis access, often paired with unfavourable media coverage, means that many patients are still being left behind to suffer.

Results

The authors of this study chose to analyse medical publications as “GPs are the first port of call for patients who may seek medicinal cannabis.”

The aim was to understand the opinions of those closest to cannabis research and, therefore, those who may understand it the most.

The results of the study are telling but not surprising: between 2000 and 2010 only one article appeared on the topic in one of the journals – medical cannabis was just not a trendy topic back then. However, from 2010 onwards, the number of articles on the subject kind of skyrocketed.

The majority of articles (62%) assessed medical cannabis in “pain and chronic pain, followed by “epilepsy or epilepsies” in more than one in three (39%) articles. “cancer or cancers” were mentioned in 38% of articles.

Even more interestingly, the tone of the articles has changed quite a bit over the years.

“Positive” headlines and “Negative” headlines on the topic are also increasing, showing a clear division on the matter – it is interesting though that no negative articles appear in these medical publications until 2015.

What happened in 2015? Well, Australia was closing in on legalising medical cannabis.

At the same time, the most positive framings were framings about the legitimacy of cannabis, legalisation, and positive research findings. Framings that more often carried a negative tone were related to poor evidence and safety issues.

Most importantly, the most frequent framings “positioned medical cannabis as a legitimate therapeutic option.”

While medical cannabis is neither fully endorsed nor rejected as a therapy in Australia, this study suggests that the majority of the professionals in the sector would be interested in working with medical cannabis as an option for people in need of special treatment.

All in all, the authors’ conclusion is: “This analysis offers evidence that medicinal cannabis is being framed as a valid medicine advocated by the community, with potential for addressing a range of conditions despite the lack of evidence, and a medicine that is not free of risk.”

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