The government of Tasmania is planning to spend $4 million a heavily regulated medical marijuana program, but critics are already claiming the cost to patients will be too expensive.
John Reeves represents a support group of patients who are already using medical cannabis, and said patients will pay almost five times more than black market prices. “People aren’t going to pay the money, they’re not going to pay $300 for something they could buy for $50 or grow in their garden,” he said.
Priority will be given to children with severe forms of epilepsy. “Our first focus under the controlled access scheme is young children and young Tasmanians with drug-resistant epilepsy,” said Tasmania’s Health Minister Michael Ferguson. “We don’t know at the moment how many children are likely to be prescribed with a medical cannabis product but we want it to be available to those who need it.”
11 year-old Alice Cowles is currently being treated with medical marijuana for her epilepsy, but her mother is not planning on participating in the new program. “The cost of medications to keep Alice where she is currently, at a therapeutic dose, [would be] about $600 a fortnight and that’s not something that many families in Tasmania could afford,” said Nicole Cowles, Alice’s mother. She said that while medical marijuana has not completely eliminated Alice’s seizures, it has significantly improved her quality of life. “At 25 weeks of age Alice was having up to 30 seizures a day and I was told that she was going blind and dying, that she could never survive,” she said. “I started treating her with medicinal cannabis four years ago; from the moment Alice started on the medicinal cannabis her health increased.”
The research supporting medical marijuana’s ability to treat epilepsy is more detailed and complete than other areas of cannabis research. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the New England Journal of Medicine focused on children with Dravet Syndrome, a form of epilepsy that rarely responds to conventional treatments. The study conveyed that 62 percent of caregivers saw an increase in the child’s quality life, compared to 34 percent in the placebo group.
But at $600 a week, patients may not be able to afford the treatment. Since it is still not registered with the federal Health Department, patients would not be eligible for compensation through public health prescription drug programs. John Reeves would like the government to allow individual growing to help with the costs, but health officials are skeptical about the quality of unregulated, untested and black market medical cannabis. “We don’t believe that black market, self-medicating cannabis is the way to go because essentially you don’t know what you’re getting,” said Stuart Day, Tasmania’s president of the Australian Medical Association.
In order for the program to truly work, Reeves believes the program needs to be rethought in order to maximize the benefits to patients and justify the government’s costs. “They’re going to have to make this scheme quite broad, quite open and quite specific for patients needs for it to grow and essentially replace the black, or green, market,” he said.