By Robbie Swan

Australia’s medicinal cannabis industry is at last starting to take shape with the opening of Victoria’s first medical cannabis clinic and dispensary in St Kilda. Under the clever brand name of ‘Releaf’ the dispensary is on the ground floor with the two storeys above it which are in the process of being converted into a doctor’s clinic and medical centre. At the opening of the venue in early February, it was hinted that there may be up to 20 doctors operating in the upstairs rooms who would send patients downstairs after a consultation to pick up their prescriptions. Releaf also intends to stock a large range of complementary medicines.

Australian governments have had great difficulty telling the general public that the drug they have been spending billions of dollars to eradicate and demonise over the last 50 years has turned out to be an effective agent for established illnesses like epilepsy and insomnia but also potentially important in a wide variety of conditions from cancer to mental health and pain management. To cover their ignorance and save face, they have placed a number of incredibly stringent parameters around legal medical cannabis and have made out that it is such a dangerous drug that they will have to manage it through a policy framework that posits it as more dangerous than opiates!

So you cannot get a prescription for medicinal cannabis on a first visit to a doctor and you have to show a background of chronic pain or epilepsy etc to qualify to be prescribed the medicine. In effect you can only get it as a last resort medicine after a whole range of drugs including opiates, have failed. As well as this, while the TGA allows opiates to be stored at a pharmacy or surgery, medicinal cannabis has to be stored somewhere else away from where it is prescribed or used making it much harder to access. Maybe the bureaucrats think it could explode or get people stoned just by walking close to it. For a drug that has no known lethal dosage – as opposed to opiates that can kill with tiny amounts – these rules make no sense at all. All they do is make you wonder why we trust politicians and health bureaucrats to make logical and evidence-based decisions as opposed to politically motivated ones.

Releaf founder Gary Mackenzie stressed at the opening of the St Kilda clinic that the venue was not just there for medical cannabis but was a ‘wellness’ centre that would focus on a wide range of medical conditions, some of which may require other herbal or traditional medicines and not just cannabis. “We’re offering a truly integrated medical program here”, he said. “CBD and other cannabinoids have opened up a whole new world that could change medicine forever but most doctors are not taught how to prescribe medicinal cannabis products at med school”.

Patients who require medicinal cannabis normally have to have their doctor apply to the TGA and the state health dept  – a process that can take up to six months and in the end have patients forking out hundreds of dollars for not a lot of medicine. Releaf aims to cut that time to somewhere between two hours and two days.

Releaf is now looking for doctors who want to work at the St Kilda clinic and undertake the special cannabis diagnostic and prescribing course, under the control of Dr Kylie O’Brien. This will lead to a certification as an “Authorised Prescriber” under an ethics committee that allows them to cut through much of the red tape that other untrained doctors have had to go through under the special access scheme.

With medicines dispensed below the clinic in the same centre, approved patients would be able to walk out with their filled prescriptions. Gary Mackenzie is also hopeful of creating a new price paradigm.  “Pharmacists will be doing our own compounding so we are hoping to halve the price that people are paying for their medicinal cannabis. Generally people will pay around $300 to $400 a month for their medicines and we are hoping to get it well under that so it is affordable. We will also reduce the price of a normal consultation down to $78 from the $200 plus that most GPs are charging.”

Adult shops could easily develop a ’sexual wellness’ section on their premises with doctors/and or psychologists visiting one afternoon a week and a range of products on board that address sexual complaints. This move toward the services side of the industry is the one that is likely to bring in new customers to adult shops, as we see more and more of the ‘product’ side of things moving on line. Adult shop owners around the country would be well-advised to drop in and see the Releaf shop next time they are in Melbourne.