Documents obtained by Business Insider Australia have revealed the actual waiting times experienced by medicinal cannabis patients in New South Wales, with a large number of cases exceeding the government’s stated 48-hour turnaround window.
The 48-hour application scheme for medicinal cannabis was rolled out in NSW, Victoria, and Queensland in July last year, with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) allowing prescribers in approved jurisdictions to submit applications electronically to both the TGA and a state or territory health department simultaneously.
At the time, federal health minister Greg Hunt called the process a “one-stop shop for accessing medicinal cannabis.”
While reports from many states around the country have confirmed an improvement in application turn-around, data obtained via Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed how significantly NSW Health has dropped the ball.
Since July 2018, there has been a consistent increase in the quantity of applications taking more than 3 days to secure a response. While there was an increase in two-day turnarounds last year – as promised – 2019 saw large numbers of applications take days and sometimes weeks to process.
NSW Health had previously been releasing patient access data each month, outlining how many applications had been received, approved, rejected, or were still pending.
As of publication, application status had been removed from the site. It is unclear why that change was made, but versions of the data is still accessible via the Wayback Machine.
Rhys Cohen, a cannabis consultant and researcher who at one time worked for Sydney University’s Lambert Initiative, one of the country’s most prominent medical cannabis institutions, told Business Insider Australia bureaucratic red tape was withholding medicine from sick people.
“[The NSW health minister Brad Hazzard] committed in March 2018 to 48-hour turnarounds for medicinal cannabis prescriptions. But in March 2019, less than 10% of prescriptions were issued within 48 hours,” he said.
“Every single month since April 2018 has seen average processing times exceed 48 hours, often by significant amounts.
“NSW Health used to release monthly updates on how many applications they had received, how many were approved/rejected and how many were pending. But they would always release these figures halfway through the next month, which was strange.
“Releasing figures in this way happened to hide the fact that most approvals were taking days or weeks to process.”
Diandra Phipps, the general manager at Tetra Health, which helps people who qualify for medical cannabis navigate the complex approval pathway, said the wait was bringing stress to patients and their families, and also to medical staff who can’t do anything to speed up the process.
“We’ve unfortunately had terminal patients pass away as recently as last month waiting for their authorities to be approved. It’s heartbreaking,” she told Business Insider Australia.
“When the TGA portal first launched in July of last year, Tetra physicians were only dealing with 3-4 day turnaround times, but the exponential patient growth has certainly had an impact on NSW Health staff and the ability to maintain that timeframe.”
The FOI documents which show the reality of NSW’s medical cannabis approval system were obtained by Sharlene Mavor, who runs Medical Cannabis Research Australia. Her charity aims to educate patients and their carers about medical cannabis across the country.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” she said. “I suppose obviously when they put out their press releases and when they have gone to change legislation they will always report on the best-case scenario and not about the data that shows patients have waited a really long time.”
“I think state health in all jurisdictions in Australia need to be kept to standards and held to account.”
Business Insider Australia spoke to two patients who said they had waited weeks for their medical cannabis applications to be processed. Both are anonymous at their request.
“When we felt I needed a formula change, even thought I had already been authorised, I still had to wait 4 and a half weeks,” said one, who suffers from severe arthritis and chronic pain.
“It’s not just once you get your letter. Once you get your letter the doctor then writes the script, and then he sends that to the chemist, and then the chemist orders it, and then you wait for it to show up.
“It’s like they’ve made it hard deliberately.”
Another patient, in his late 50s, was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer last year.
“It would take me 45 minutes to eat two poached eggs,” he said. “I was on Endone [a type of opioid]. That was fucked up. That is just an awful drug. I really wanted to get off it. I wasn’t sleeping, the pain was unbelievable. I was losing weight.”
He said he was told the approval would take two days.
“We filled out the paperwork, we submitted it, and I was told the TGA would approve my case in 48 hours.
“After a week of nothing I was ringing and ringing and my cancer specialist was running around with a prescription notepad in her bag saying ‘when I hear back from NSW Health I’ll do a script for you’.”
Seventeen days went by before the Sydney man finally received his approval.
“I took one drop on a Friday, took another drop at 10pm, and I slept like a baby and woke in the morning and devoured breakfast,” he said.
“I was so pissed because I’d been through all of this pain and feeling unwell and traumatised… I felt like I went through two weeks of pain for nothing.
“I shouldn’t have to be on Endone to take away the pain. I’m really cranky that the government wouldn’t help us. I don’t want others to go through what I did. I went through hell.”
In the period since the FOI request was fulfilled, the NSW Government changed the relevant regulation, removing itself from the approvals process for medicinal cannabis. This regulation, which goes into effect on September 30, would mean that approvals will only go through the TGA, and will no longer be referred to the state government.
In a statement, a NSW Health spokesperson said that these “new processes” would streamline and improve the approval scheme.
“NSW Health has been monitoring these increases with a view to streamlining and improving the process while also maintaining appropriate safeguards for patient safety,” the statement reads.
“The new processes which will reduce processing time have now been approved and will apply to applications received from 30 September.”