Medical students only taught about potential harms of cannabis use

16th August 2021

Medical cannabis prescriptions have been significantly on the rise in Australia in recent years. However, the decades-long prohibition of cannabis reportedly has had long-lasting effects on the medical community’s willingness – and ability – to accept the plant’s medical potential.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration reportedly approved 10,755 cannabis prescriptions in the past year – up almost 100% from 5,564 in July 2020. Medical cannabis prescriptions were approved under Category B of the special access scheme, which remains the main pathway for doctors to prescribe medical cannabis.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Justin Sinclair, Chief Scientific Officer at the Australian Natural Therapeutics Group, said many doctors are still reluctant to prescribe cannabis due to the long-standing stigma around the plant.

According to Mr Sinclair, at a lecture that he delivered to 100 doctors and nurses in 2019 and asked them to raise their hands if they had learnt about the therapeutic and medical potential of cannabis or about the endocannabinoid system during their undergraduate course – no one raised their hands.

“Not a single hand was raised, and I found out later that what training they did receive around cannabis was only associated with the harms,” he said.

There has been increasing concerns in recent years about the lack of education around cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. Despite now being legal for medical use in a large number of countries, training around the medical and therapeutic potential of the plant and its derivatives is still severely lacking.

The picture is similar in the UK, where cannabis was legalised for medical purposes in November 2018. While access to medical cannabis is improving in the private sector, prescriptions through the NHS remain extremely low. This is largely reported to be due to a lack of education among GPs and doctors working in the NHS.

Attempts to improve the situation have been launched in various countries – including the UK and Australia. The Australian Senate has backed proposals to introduce additional medical cannabis training programs to compensate for the education gap.

A Senate enquiry recommended targeted education and public awareness campaigns in addition to mandatory modules in medical degrees.

In response, the Australian government agreed to create videos and infographics for members of the public and health professionals, however, it stopped short of committing to awareness campaigns or medical training.

Similarly, in the UK there have been various recommendations made to help refine the current medical cannabis sector – including increased education and access. The government is yet to commit to any concrete policy changes to improve the situation, though government officials continue to meet with campaigners and experts.

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